As I entered the examination room, my young patient giggled with infectious energy as his grandmother gently tickled him. The loving bond they shared was deep and moving, even to an almost stranger.
I sat down and asked the grandmother what questions she had for me about her grandson’s health. Her smile faded as she told me she was terrified to send him back to school.
In the past year, he had been in the emergency room four times with breathing problems when his asthma flared up. She was concerned that he contracted COVID-19 when he went back to school. She wanted to know what she could do to protect him.
As we reviewed his asthma care plan and the evidence supporting masking, she took careful notes. But when I asked her if she had been vaccinated against COVID-19, she froze and looked away. She told me she had no intention of getting the vaccine and was not interested in discussing it further.
This felt all too familiar. Many families in our practice have chosen not to receive the vaccine for themselves or their eligible children over the age of 12. I am alarmed at how much of this hesitation stems from misinformation being spread through social media and elected officials, all with no scientific backing.
Parents have told me they don’t feel like getting vaccinated because they don’t think COVID-19 will cause them any serious illness. They are afraid that the vaccine is too new or will have side effects.
Even when their child is in our hospital with COVID-19 complications, parents have told me all this.
Some believe the vaccine is a matter of individual choice. But that is not it.
Most of my patients are too young to receive the vaccine and have to rely on those around them to protect them. They don’t get a choice.
Further, as the number of cases increases, our health care systems are once again overwhelmed. In San Antonio, the demand for EMS was so great that at one point there were no ambulances available. Last Friday in Dallas, there were no children’s ICU beds available in the entire city. On Wednesday, Alabama had no statewide ICU beds.
Philadelphia has not been hit as hard as other parts of the US so far, but the spread is likely to accelerate once schools open. We could have the same deficiencies we see elsewhere, and that would affect all the kids who come to the hospital. Again, they don’t get a choice.
The pandemic has truly become one of the unvaccinated, with over 95% of new cases nationwide among unvaccinated individuals. Last month in Pennsylvania, 97% of hospitalized patients were unvaccinated, accounting for 99% of all COVID-related deaths.
My young patient’s grandmother was unimpressed with my spitting statistics on vaccine efficacy, or emphasizing the fact that side effects, when they do occur, are usually minor and short-lived. She wasn’t too impressed with my admission that breakthrough infections do occur in vaccinated people, but they are much less severe than unvaccinated people face. She had heard this speech before.
Here’s what changed everything for her: turning the discussion around her grandson and his safety.
Nothing was more important to her, she told me, promising that she would talk to her doctor about the vaccine and that she would probably get it — to protect him.
I hope I helped her. I know she helped me change the conversation with parents. Our job as pediatricians is to show parents how vaccination against COVID can be a protective act of love for their child.
We will continue to do everything we can to take care of your children. But we need your help. If your child is 12 years or older, the vaccine is safe and effective, and trials are underway for younger children. Meanwhile, the best protection for our unvaccinated youth is to mask and vaccinate those around them who qualify. I encourage you to consult reputable sources such as the CDC, the Children’s Hospital or Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center, your own physician, or your child’s pediatrician.
Ultimately, I hope you choose to protect yourself; it’s the best thing you can do to protect those you love most.
Jeremy Jones, MD is a pediatrician in Philadelphia.