State health officer says children can now get vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities
After a long wait, children aged five to 11 are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. While many parents and children breathed a sigh of relief, others might be questioning the necessity of a vaccine for one of the most resilient age groups. Wyoming Public Radio's Jeff Victor spoke with Wyoming Public Health Officer Alexia Harrist, who said children and their communities benefit from vaccination.
Alexia Harrist: The FDA did authorize and the CDC does recommend now the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 for children aged five to 11 and both the Wyoming Department of Health, and the CDC, recommend it for all children ages five to 11. So there's no other specifications other than we recommend all children get it.
Jeff Victor: And we've heard throughout the pandemic that kids and young people are at less of a risk of having serious cases or being hospitalized or dying. So, why is it important for this age group to get vaccinated?
AH: While it is true that COVID-19 does tend to cause milder illness in children than it does in adults, it still doesn't mean that any child couldn't get very severely ill and need to be hospitalized or even die from COVID. So while it's less common among kids than it is among adults, we do see children get very sick, we do see them needing to be hospitalized. And unfortunately, nationally, we have seen children die from COVID-19. In particular, children with some underlying medical conditions seem to be more susceptible, but really it's possible for any child to become very sick. And these vaccines are extremely effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death among kids. We also know that children can get it and spread it to others who may be at higher risk of severe illness. And because these vaccines reduce the likelihood of becoming infected with COVID-19, they can also help reduce the spread to other family members or other contacts who may be older or have underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk.
JV: And what is the Department of Health or Wyoming doing to promote vaccination for kids? Are you just messaging? Or are there plans to set up vaccine clinics specifically for kids like in school or elsewhere? Anything like that?
AH: Yeah, so we are certainly doing messaging in general about COVID-19 vaccines and trying to get the people the information they need to make the choice to get vaccinated. So we will continue to do that. We are communicating with providers to make sure that they have the information they need to give to their patients. And that includes pediatric providers and family medicine providers who will be taking care of pediatric patients. And yes, so a lot of the work that you're talking about does go on locally - local public health offices, and local health departments setting up clinics for pediatric vaccinations, working with schools to have school-based clinics in certain places where that makes sense. So, we're trying to take the role of both getting out the information that people need, and also trying to make sure that the vaccine is easily accessible and convenient for families to access. And of course, the vaccines are always free.
JV: And some school districts at this point are thinking about relaxing or eliminating their mask requirement in January because at that point kids and parents will have had time to get vaccinated and for that vaccine to take effect. Do you think that's reasonable? Or would schools benefit from keeping these like multiple layers of protection as I've heard school board members talk about it?
AH: Yeah, that is a great question. I mean vaccination is clearly the best way and the most effective way to prevent illness and prevent the spread of COVID-19. But in situations where we have high rates of transmission and/or low rates of vaccination - which we know we have in Wyoming - then those other strategies, like, you talked about, those layered strategies, do also become important. So, while the vaccines are the most effective way, while we have high rates of transmission like this, it's likely that other strategies - masking and distancing, staying home when sick - are still going to be important, but the more people get vaccinated the less we'll have to rely on those other types of measures.
JV: Yeah, I imagine lots of lots of kids and parents are looking forward to schooling without masks at some point.
AH: And I totally agree. And I totally understand that, and we want that. We want that to happen. Absolutely. That is the goal of Public Health - to be able to return to as normal an environment as possible. And the way we get there is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the best way to do that is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated.
JV: And I have a few more COVID-related questions for you. I understand there's a pill out now that can treat some COVID symptoms. What does that mean for Wyoming, and what does it mean for how we're handling the pandemic?
AH: Sure, so I'm imagining you're talking about a pill that's called molnupiravir. It is not available yet. Though we do expect that we may have an FDA authorization within the next several months. That pill is meant for individuals who have COVID-19 who have mild symptoms when they're diagnosed, but who are at risk for developing more severe symptoms and at risk for hospitalization and death. So that is a similar indication to what we currently have the monoclonal antibody infusions for, that are currently being given across the state. But this is a more convenient option because it is a pill that can be taken orally, and taken at home. So, we are certainly looking forward to having that medication available. It will likely be available in limited quantities at first, but the Wyoming Department of Health will work to make sure that it is available as much as possible throughout the state and again, accessible to people that can take it at the time that they're diagnosed and try to prevent those more severe illnesses and hospitalizations.
JV: And finally, we've been hearing that some people are waiting too long to get treated, thinking it will go away and then having a rougher time in the hospital. Is that happening, and if so, how do we turn that around?
AH: Yes, that's definitely a concern of ours. I think there is a misconception that you know, 'Why should I get tested? Because there's nothing that can be done.' And while that was true at the beginning of the pandemic - that we didn't have effective medication for it - we do now. And so it is important for people to be tested as soon as they develop symptoms. Early detection can help prevent or can help direct people to get these medications that are available to help prevent severe disease and illness. So we do encourage people to get tested, you know, as soon as they get sick and not delay that because they could miss the opportunity to obtain those effective medications.