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Most Parents Say No to Covid-19 Vaccines for Toddlers

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 8/8/2022 Jared S. Hopkins, Jon Kamp
© Nicky Quamina-Woo for The Wall Street Journal

Parents are having their say about the Covid-19 vaccines for children under 5, and for most, the answer so far is no.

More than a month after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended shots for about 17.4 million children ages 6 months through 4 years, about 4% to 5% of them have received a shot, according to the most recent agency data and population estimates from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

By contrast, the vaccination rate for children 5 to 11 years reached about 18% a month after the CDC first recommended shots last November. The rate now stands at about 38%.

“The rates of uptake are just not what we would hope,” said Brannon Traxler, director of public health for the Department of Health and Environmental Control in South Carolina, where recent data show about 2% of the state’s babies and toddlers have received at least one dose. “This is a common theme across the country in many places.” 

Some parents are holding off until their children get fall checkups or because their children recently became infected, parents, doctors and health officials said. 

High numbers of parents also don’t perceive the virus as a threat, or have safety concerns because the vaccines are still new, according to surveys and parents and health officials. 

Health authorities said they had expected parents to inoculate their young children slowly. To increase uptake, state health officials said they are counting on doctors conveying to families accurate information about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy. 

Joe Woerner, 47, a science teacher from Asbury Park, N.J., said he doesn’t plan to vaccinate his 8-month-old son or 3-year-old daughter. He said all four of his children recovered from mild cases of Covid-19, and he hasn’t seen enough scientific evidence that the virus posed a threat to young children. 

He also said he is concerned the shots weren’t tested enough in children.  

“I tend to be a slower adopter of newer technologies,” said Mr. Woerner, who said he and his wife also passed on getting vaccinated and recovered from mild cases of Covid. 

Pfizer Inc. and partner BioNTech SE enrolled roughly 4,500 young children in their trial, while Moderna’s study had about 6,700 subjects.

Most children who become infected with Covid-19 have mild or no symptoms at all, and they are much less likely than adults to become hospitalized or die. Yet hospitalizations among children increased after the highly transmissible Omicron variant emerged, and health authorities encourage children to get the shots to also protect older people.

The level of vaccine uptake among younger children has been significantly slower than the pace for older children, although parents of children of many age groups have moved cautiously, compared with the early rush among adults to get shots.

More than a million first-dose vaccine shots were recorded for children in the larger 5- to 11-year-old group in the first week after the CDC first recommended them in early November, according to agency data.

By comparison, the CDC by last week counted roughly 755,700 children under five years who got their first shot since June 18, when the agency signed off on vaccines for that age group. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently pegged the number at about 800,000.

Polls have found large numbers of parents of children under 5 years opposed to vaccinating them. More than four in 10 parents said they would definitely not get their young child inoculated, according to a survey published in July from the Kaiser Family Foundation. About one-quarter of parents said they would wait and see.

Contributing to the slow pace has been the relatively low number of pediatricians who have signed up to administer the vaccine, said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

Uptake has varied by state, recent counts from around the U.S. show. In Massachusetts, roughly 40,541 children under 5, about 11% of the state’s population in that age group, have received one dose. In New Jersey, more than 21,000 young children, or 4.6% of the children under 5 in that state, have received one dose. 

“We thought getting Covid is far worse than any discomfort that could come from taking the vaccine,” said Yalda Woodley, 35, of Nutley, N.J., who with her husband, David Woodley, took their 2-year-old son, Cameron, to get vaccinated at a county clinic in Livingston, N.J., late last month. Cameron didn’t experience any side effects in the days following the shot, said Mr. Woodley, 37. 

Roughly 300 children under 5 received doses at the vaccination site that recent day, said an Essex County spokesman. 

In Arkansas, 3,378 young children, or 1.8%, have been vaccinated, according to data from the state.

Jennifer Dillaha, director of Arkansas’s health department, said unvaccinated parents are unlikely to get shots for their children, which often “revolves around a portion of the population that believes that the vaccines are not safe or not needed or Covid-19 is not real.”  

North Carolina has vaccinated more than 23,000 children under 5, or 4% of all the state’s children in that demographic. The state has forecast that about 18% of parents of children under 5 would opt for the shots after three months, said Elizabeth Tilson, the state’s health director. 

“We expected this to be a slow simmer, and that’s what we’re seeing right now,” Dr. Tilson said. 

She attributed the state’s vaccination rate to giving priority access to shots at pediatrician offices. She also said the state has done outreach to parents, conducting virtual town halls with physicians. 

Write to Jared S. Hopkins at jared.hopkins@wsj.com and Jon Kamp at Jon.Kamp@wsj.com

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