By Mariacristina Calcagno, J.R. Masterman
On a chilly February Saturday afternoon at Southwark Elementary in South Philly, two signs indicated a vaccine clinic. They led around the corner, where two more banners advertised COVID-19 vaccines. An open door welcomed families into the brick building, where a mix of the Spanish and English languages greeted them. Guardians signed in and awaited vaccination, facing a large mural of Bugs Bunny. Meanwhile, pharmacists from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) vaccinated primarily children around the room. Families were rewarded with boxes of KN95 masks, lollipops, coloring pages and crayons.
On March 1, 2022, about four months after the COVID-19 vaccine was released for children aged 5 to 11, the City of Philadelphia recorded a vaccination rate for that group of 53.6% for one dose. Data for two doses is forthcoming. This statistic surpassed the Mayo Clinic data, reporting 35.2% in Pennsylvania and 33% nationwide for the same group; yet, Philly’s number was small enough to wonder about the difference between young children and older groups, ages 12 and up, at 91.1% and adults, who are over 95% vaccinated.
Experts know vaccines end pandemics quickly and effectively. Dr. Foxman of Yale University said in an interview regarding herd immunity that vaccines are “the only way out” of this pandemic. James Garrow, spokesman for the city of Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH), notes that “a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that two doses of COVID vaccine were 90.7% effective against COVID-19 in 5- to 11-year-old children.”
But families are still dubious. After all, a vaccine created in one year is unprecedented.
A mother of a 14-year-old, who requested anonymity, lives in nearby Westampton, New Jersey. She hesitated to let her daughter receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as she feels “there wasn’t enough research on the safety, efficacy and long term effects on the vaccine being administered.” However, she adds that after “weighing the pros and the cons… the pros outweighed the cons,” and her daughter got vaccinated.
Another mother in Media spoke about her anti-vax extended family, who have not vaccinated their children because they believe that the vaccine causes autism, leading to “general vaccine hesitancy and mistrust in science.” They also heard it causes heart inflammation. However, the CDC highlights that vaccines and autism are unrelated, and UCDavis Health specifies that heart inflammation only occurs in about one in 6,000 teenagers, with effects mild enough not to warrant medical attention.
Paul Offit, Director of Vaccine Education Center at CHOP, reported in an interview with the American Medical Association that parents are “afraid that it’ll [the vaccine will] render their child infertile…” In that interview, Offit explained that this is a myth.
Garrow also witnessed hesitancy, acknowledging that “many people – rightfully – have worries about what they put into their child’s bodies.”
“For people who are concerned about a lack of information on the long-term effects of receiving the COVID vaccine,” Garrow added, “it’s true, we don’t have long-term studies of their safety and effectiveness. But we also don’t have long-term studies of the safety [the effects of] getting COVID.”
He emphasized that the available COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by the U.S. FDA and CDC and have been through repeated clinical trials and that millions have received the vaccine. Garrow continued: “No drug is without the possibility of side effects, but real side effects brought on by the vaccine have been exceedingly rare. These vaccines are safe.”
Local organizations are practicing vaccine outreach to decrease the virus’ spread. The onsite coordinator at Southwark Elementary listed steps taken to increase attendance at the clinic: they hired Spanish speakers from Puentes de Salud, a non-profit group assisting Philadelphia’s Latinx community in healthcare, education, and community network, advertised on social media, and circulated an e-newsletter to families. As seen at Southwark, CHOP collaborates with the Public School District of Philadelphia.
Garrow said that PDPH has been “contacting guardians in our vaccine registry who have children who are eligible to receive COVID vaccine” and said the city is “recommending pediatricians to reach out to their patients to set up appointments to receive the COVID vaccine.”
Additionally, one may notice advertisements on Philly’s streets with messages such as, “They’ve missed enough already.” This presumably refers to pandemic lockdowns, which meant lack of socialization and quotidian activities for children and teenagers. Because of the steady increase in youth vaccinations, Garrow surmised the methods proved effective. When asked about vaccinations in schools, he says that, for now, Philadelphia’s school district will not require vaccinations, but PDPH is observing other districts that have already mandated vaccinations.