The FDA’s approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds is an important step in the nation’s path toward herd immunity and for providing an additional layer of protection that will make it easier for teenagers to attend summer camp and in-person schooling in the fall.
However, the greatest challenge to getting 17 million teens vaccinated may not be FDA approval but instead parental approval. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Vaccine Monitor found only 3 in 10 parents say they will get their child vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is available. Nearly 25 percent will wait to see how it’s working, 18 percent will vaccinate only if their child’s school requires it, and 23 percent say they will definitely not get their child vaccinated.
Parents are naturally more cautious about health decisions related to their own children than they are with their own. Some are concerned about the safety and side effects of a vaccine that was so quickly developed and approved. Clinical trial data offers some reassurance after it was demonstrated to be 100 percent effective in 12 to 15-year-olds with no serious side effects, making it more effective at preventing infections among teens than with adults.
Some parents are asking why the vaccine is necessary for their children who have been spared the worst of COVID-19 complications. Yet, despite this lower risk, thousands have still been hospitalized and more than 400 have died. This puts COVID deaths higher than the deadliest seasonal flu over the last two decades, and nearly on par with the 500 deaths associated with measles before a vaccine was available. In addition, more than 3,000 children have also developed a rare but dangerous inflammatory syndrome referred to as MIS-C that resulted from a COVID-19 infection.
Besides protecting teenagers themselves, the vaccines also provide an additional layer of protection for society as a whole since asymptomatic children can unknowingly transmit the virus to other adults. Vaccinating teens will help to slow the rate of infections and also counter the emergence of dangerous variants of the virus.
These arguments will persuade some parents, but others will want to wait to see if any adverse side effects come with the first wave of vaccinating teens. Communities can take several actions aimed at addressing the concerns of hesitant parents. First, it is a mistake to shame parental hesitancy or condemn them as “anti-vaxxers.” Doing so will likely only harden their positions. Alternatively, we need to create a space for parents to raise their concerns and provide answers to these parents in a way that is empathetic, instead of stigmatizing people who have questions or fears. Parents need to feel heard before they will be in a position to be open to hearing factual information.
Second, information and facts from a trusted source remove uncertainty and decrease hesitancy. A family’s doctor, particularly pediatricians, are among the most trusted sources of COVID information. It is important to ensure they are equipped with the resources and information to help answer concerns and provide the information parents need to make an informed decision for their children. When the COVID Collaborative polled parents they found that a recommendation from their child’s pediatricians would earn trust from 83 percent of parents.
Third, we need to eliminate any of the logistical barriers to increase vaccination rates, particularly for parents who have trouble taking time off, finding transportation, or arranging for child care. That means expanding vaccination sites to include more convenient locations for teenagers and parents, including pediatrician offices, schools, churches, and other places in the community. These clinics could be extended in the fall through other occasions such as school sporting events. This would help not only reach teenagers but also parents and other community members.
It’s vital that communities develop strategies that engage parents now as the decisions around vaccinations will only become more complicated in the fall when vaccines are approved for younger children. The path toward herd immunity and greater community protection rests on decisions parents will make over the next several months.
John Bailey serves as a strategic advisor to philanthropies, investors, and technology companies. His experience includes senior positions at the White House, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Education and Whiteboard Advisors.