Very few Wyoming children are vaccinated and officials want that to change
In November, coronavirus vaccines were approved and recommended for children between the ages of five and 11. While some parents and children eagerly took the vaccine as soon as it was available, others were more hesitant. Currently, the childhood vaccination rate is far lower than the rate for adults.
Dr. Kiran Koduri is a pediatrician at Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. He specializes in critical and in-patient care, and is more likely to see your child during an emergency than a routine check-up.
When it comes to vaccines, Koduri echoes the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"I personally recommend giving it to whoever is eligible above five years," he said. "And I did do that to my own children as well."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we've all heard that children are at less risk for being hospitalized or dying because of COVID-19 and that's true.
Children infected with coronavirus are less likely to experience the severe respiratory issues that leave some adults unable to breathe. But Koduri said children can and have suffered from COVID-19.
"With most diseases, it's that one child out of a thousand that we protect by doing vaccines and stuff like that," Koduri said. "And even that one child's life is really valuable."
In Wyoming, about ten percent of children aged five to 11 are vaccinated. That's half the national average. And for teenagers, it's only about 30 percent.
"We certainly would like those numbers to be higher," State Public Health Officer Alexia Harrist said. "Given our low immunization rate among adults, it's unfortunately not necessarily surprising that we're seeing some hesitancy among parents of children of younger ages."
Wyoming's rates are especially low, but childhood vaccinations are also low across the country. There are several reasons for that.
For one, adults in Wyoming have had about a year to get vaccinated, but children have had less than three months.
"If you look at the big picture, we have eliminated a lot of diseases because of vaccines. The diseases we used to see 20 years ago, we don't see them anymore, just because of vaccines. That's the value of vaccinations for children."
"It's possible some people are using a wait-and-see approach," Harrist said. "We certainly wouldn't encourage that, based on the fact that we are seeing so many cases of COVID-19 right now."
The "wait-and-see" approach is indeed what many adults have done for their own vaccines. Uncertain about a new medical intervention, they weren't rushing out to get vaccinated as soon as they could. They got the vaccine instead months later, after seeing that billions of other people worldwide had taken the vaccine and been fine.
University of Wyoming public health expert Christine Porter agreed parents might be taking the same approach now.
"The fears that people had, rightly or because of misinformation in most cases, about getting vaccinated are multiplied with children," she said. "We're all afraid for children all the time when you're a parent."
So when you've heard about possible side effects, even if they're rare side effects, even if they're side effects you would risk for yourself - it can be a different story when it comes to your kids.
Especially, Porter said, if you know that catching COVID-19 is, on average, less disastrous for children.
"And it is still true that kids are much much less likely to end up hospitalized and certainly killed by COVID," she said. "So the trade-off is less clear."
But Porter said the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the side effects, even for children.
That's why both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend COVID vaccines for everyone five and up. The World Health Organization has also said that vaccines are safe and effective for most children.
Children and adults have another incentive for getting vaccinated. The more vaccinated the population, the less the virus spreads. And the less the virus spreads, the better that schools and hospitals are able to function.
And Porter said the current omicron wave is only going to get worse.
"I think for Wyoming, it's really just starting," Porter said. "Omicron waves appear to blow over much faster than previous waves, which is good. But because Wyoming was later to start, we're also probably going to be later to get through this. So our cases are still rising dramatically."
Porter recommends getting vaccinated; she also recommends masking and wishes that state and county officials would institute mask mandates, taking the pressure off local school boards that currently have to make their own health policies.
Omicron may be less deadly than earlier variants but it spreads far more easily. Given just how good it is at spreading, experts say the overall effect of this wave could be worse than delta. It could overwhelm hospitals, as it has elsewhere in the country.
"Child hospitalization rates doubled last week or the week before overall - and that will come here," Porter said. "Why would it be any different here?"
Dr. Koduri said most of those hospitalizations will be adults. That was the case during the winter surge of 2020 and the delta spike of 2021.
"Since the outset of COVID, hospitalizations for children have been pretty low," Koduri said. "They are not that comparable to the adult side at any given point. But definitely COVID is also affecting children."
Again, for Koduri, it's about trying to save that one child in a thousand who will have a rough time. And vaccination is the only way out of this emergency.
"If you look at the big picture, we have eliminated a lot of diseases because of vaccines," Koduri said. "The diseases we used to see 20 years ago, we don't see them anymore, just because of vaccines. That's the value of vaccinations for children."
Vaccines are available for free at most healthcare facilities and at pharmacies. Boosters are recommended for children five months after their first round of shots.