We have a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 and older, but unfortunately their rate of vaccination remains low, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Parents are understandably cautious when it comes to making decisions about their children’s health, and teens have questions of their own. We talked with Rebecca Curran, MD, PhD, family medicine doctor and epidemiologist with Lourdes Physician Group, Michael Bolton, MD, pediatric infectious disease physician with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, and Reuben Battley, MD, adolescent medicine specialist with Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health, about some of those common questions. Their answers should help alleviate some worry as your family makes this important decision.
We know all parents want to do what’s best for their child, and the vaccine is another tool to help protect your family. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a personal choice, but it is a safe choice.
Community Benefits, Individual Benefits
Being vaccinated against COVID-19 does more than just protect a vaccinated person’s health. It protects a much bigger community, including vulnerable household members: younger siblings not yet eligible to get a vaccine and those with weakened immune systems who may not get the same protection from the vaccine. Making the choice to get vaccinated can be a way kids learn they’re part of a community and can help stop COVID-19 and keep others safe.
“Our health system is in crisis,” Dr. Curran says. “This is not just impacting your risk of giving grandma COVID-19. It’s impacting grandma’s ability to get good care if she has a heart attack. We all depend on our hospital and system for illness and accidents and that’s absolutely in danger now because of the amounts of COVID-19 in our community.”
Another practical consideration for choosing vaccination is how harmful social isolation and quarantine are for teens’ development. A fully vaccinated teen would not have to miss as much school each time they are exposed to COVID-19 because they are more protected by their vaccine and quarantine guidelines are less restrictive.
Dr. Battley says many of his young patients who are eligible to get vaccinated are unmoved. “Really the only thing I have for teens is that literally you could die,” he says. “This could end your life. I don’t have examples of teenagers dying from getting the vaccine, but I have examples of teenagers dying from the virus who didn’t get the vaccine. It’s not that hard of a choice.”
Worry About Rushed Vaccine Creation
The normal scientific process is slow in part due to the amount of paperwork involved at every step. In a normal, nonemergency study, the work done in each phase must be completed before the next phase can begin. With the creation of the COVID-19 vaccines, the process allowed steps to run in parallel without cutting corners. Huge amounts of red tape and time were cut out by solving the logistics problem without threatening the science. The federal government took on the financial risk of creating actual doses before vaccines were approved, guaranteeing to purchase doses regardless of whether they worked.
“As it played out that vaccine was approved, and a shot went into my arm eight days later, which I really consider to be a miracle,” Dr. Curran says. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which is approved for use in everyone ages 12 and up, has received full FDA authorization for ages 16 and up.
Side Effect Risks in COVID-19 Infection vs. Vaccine
“I’m much more worried about long-term effects of COVID-19 than any long-lasting effects of a vaccine,” Dr. Curran says. “By nature of how the vaccine works you’d expect any unusual side effects to show up within the first days and maximum of a month or two.”
Dr. Curran explains that immunity works because your body is always on the lookout for anything that is not you and not supposed to be there. She compares it to creating a wanted poster that stays in your immune cells’ memory long term. For the rest of your life, your body will look for this particular thing that’s not supposed to be there, and any time it’s found that kicks off an immune response.
“The likelihood of you having a bad outcome or having ill effects from COVID-19 are much, much higher than any side effects of the vaccine,” Dr. Bolton says. “When you look at the number of folks including children who have died from COVID-19 vs. receiving the vaccine, it’s really easy to see that the vaccine’s the way to go.”
In Louisiana at least 13 children have died from COVID-19, including a 14-year-old in Baker. “I was hoping I’d never see that, and that really shook everything for me,” Dr. Battley says. “A high school football player, that’s just a regular kid who lost his life in this pandemic. This is not a game. This is dangerous.”
Vaccine Side Effect Worry: Inflammation of the Heart
Some of the rare side effects that would be seen in the first month after vaccination are related to the body’s inflammatory process going wrong. One that has been seen with the COVID-19 vaccine, especially among younger patients, is myocarditis, or an inflammation of the heart. Watch Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, explain myocarditis in teens when it comes to COVID-19 and the vaccine.
Anything having to do with cardiac issues in kids is scary. Most kids who have this rare complication can recover at home with rest and ibuprofen. Myocarditis is not fun, but it is treatable, and the potential bad outcomes from a COVID-19 infection are a much greater risk. With the Delta variant more children are experiencing MIS-C, which can include significant heart issues.
“There are very rare vaccine side effects. Most of them are on the order of one in a million or one in a hundred thousand, significantly lower than the risk of bad complications of COVID-19,” Dr. Curran says. “A child’s one-in-a-million risk of death from COVID-19 is very real and much more concerning than this same rare risk of a side effect.”
Vaccine Side Effect Worry: Fertility
“We have not seen any data to suggest there are fertility issues, and there’s just no basis for why the vaccine would cause that,” Dr. Curran says. “I have no reason to believe this would affect your child’s fertility. I will happily give it to my daughter as soon as she’s eligible. That’s how confident I am.”
These concerns may be traced to the language from the initial vaccine studies that requested trial participants not get pregnant and to use protection with sexual partners. The language is standard scientific practice for any first-time medical testing and should be reassuring that the vaccine went through a normal, rigorous testing process.
Vaccines create healthy bodies, and healthy bodies are more fertile. Vaccines allow children to grow normally, which is also likely to increase fertility. COVID-19 infections in men can impact their fertility and sperm count, but we have not seen this in the vaccine.
Myth: I’ll Be Fine Without a Vaccine Because I’m Young and Healthy
Teens and their parents often tell Dr. Battley they don’t see the point of getting a vaccine because they are sure they’ll be OK anyway. “You can’t say that because I’m young or don’t have underlying conditions I’ll be OK,” he says. “You don’t know if you’re going to be fine. This is different. The only way you can say you’ll be OK is getting the vaccine.”
I’ve Already Had COVID-19. Why Do I Need a Vaccine?
Studies have shown that immunity from a natural infection isn’t as protective as the immunity you get from the vaccine you receive for COVID. “You have much longer immunity and protection when given a vaccine than when you had an infection,” Dr. Bolton says.
Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Health pediatricians are here to answer other questions you and your children may have when making this decision.
Listen to a ParentingU Podcast episode about COVID-19 and children, published in February 2022: