Pediatric vaccines are safe and effective, and a vital tool in preventing severe illness from COVD-19, officials for the Centers for Disease Control said Thursday. As V.I. children return to in-person learning Monday, vaccines become more urgent than ever.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Virgin Islands Source, Shana Godfred-Cato, a pediatrician and medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, outlined the benefits of pediatric vaccinations and the dangers of skipping them, especially as the highly-contagious Omicron variant spreads.
Tourism-dependent places like the Virgin Islanders need to take COVID-19 particularly seriously as people from all over the world gather in the territory. Parents working in the tourism industry could easily bring the virus home, Godfred-Cato said.
“There are significant increases in cases of children contracting COVID during the omicron surge and a significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths nationwide,” she said. “Because this population has the lowest vaccination rate, they are at an increased risk for COVID.”
More than two million U.S. children between ages 5 and 11 have been diagnosed with COVID. More than 8,300 children in that age group were hospitalized with COVID-19 from mid-October through the first week of January. As many as 100 died in that four-month period — a rate that has made COVID-19 one of the top ten killers of children 5 to 11.
Unvaccinated children were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than vaccinated kids, according to a 2021 study. Another study published at the end of 2021 found nearly 78 percent of children hospitalized with COVID-19 were diagnosed with very dangerous acute COVID-19. One-third of these kids had another underlying health problem like diabetes, obesity, or even the common cold. Only 0.4 percent of these hospitalized children had been vaccinated.
In addition to the respiratory system damage associated with COVID-19, children are particularly susceptible to the dangerous multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
“Those kids have inflamed organ systems: heart, lungs, kidneys, eyes, skin, gastro-intestinal. Since the pandemic, more than 2,300 cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children have been reported in children ages 5 to 11,” Godfred-Cato said.
The syndrome presents in several ways, many of which are like many other infections. It includes fever as well as stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, skin rash, blood-shot eyes, or dizziness. The CDC urges parents to take children to the emergency room if the symptoms are severe and include trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest that does not go away, confusion or unusual behavior, extreme abdominal pain, inability to wake or stay awake, or the child’s skin or lips or nails turns blue, grey, or unusually pale.
“It can be hard to distinguish from COVID itself,” she said. “Typically the timeline looks like these kids had COVID and then maybe two to six weeks later these symptoms developed. So the important thing for any child who has developed COVID is for the family members to look for a new illness after the COVID.”
There is good news, however. Multi-system inflammatory syndrome is not contagious. It is a hyper response by a person’s immune system. And a study during the delta surge showed vaccines made children 91 percent less likely to get multi-system inflammatory syndrome, Godfred-Cato said. None of the sickest kids were vaccinated.
Children who contract COVID-19 and recover are also susceptible to long COVID-19, which can include damage to the heart, lungs, and other organs, chronic fatigue, short-term memory loss, confusion, headaches, and more.
“We don’t yet know what the future looks like for those children,” Godfred-Cato said.
While the COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent the spread of the illness, it does drastically reduce its severity.
“I urge parents to get their vaccine-age kids vaccinated. I also have two school-aged children that I have vaccinated,” she said. “We recommend that children receive both doses of the vaccine. For everyone 12 and older, the booster shot is recommended as well.”
Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are available for children 5- to 17-years-old, she said. Kids over 12-years-old can also get the so-called booster third shot, which is not yet recommended for kids under 12-years-old. Anyone 18 and up can choose from any of the other COVID vaccines available as well as the booster shot. All the vaccines are approved under an Emergency Use Authorization.
The most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are identical to those from other pediatric vaccines: a sore arm, brief and mild flu-like symptoms. Myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart – is a rare but serious side effect. While the COVID-19 vaccine was developed very quickly, it builds on technology that has been around for more than 140 years.
Vaccines are only part of the fight to keep children COVID-19 free, she said. While N95 and KN95 masks that fit snugly around the nose and cheeks are ideal, the best mask is one that a child will wear consistently. Outdoor activities are very safe, she said – even face-to-face contact sports like rugby. But indoor sports, particularly locker rooms, can be dangerous and masks should be worn at all times.
Retrofitting indoor spaces to be COVID-19 safe can be difficult. While an open window helps, it can be hard to know just how much air is circulating, Godfred-Cato said.
There are still plenty of mysteries about COVID-19, she said. Not everyone who gets COVID-19 feels ill, while others – even normally healthy people – become severely ill or die. In other cases, sometimes one person in a household contracts COVID-19, but for unknown reasons, it doesn’t spread to their family members.