ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday launched a statewide effort to vaccinate younger children against COVID-19.
State and local officials are scheduling vaccinations for the initial wave of children ages 5 to 11 after approval this week by the federal government.
“We all have hope today,” Dr. Michael Zollicoffer, a pediatrician who works at Sinai Hospital, said at an Annapolis news conference Wednesday afternoon. “So, listen to me: We have a safe shot. We have an effective shot. We have a dreaded disease. We have needless deaths.”
Zollicoffer and other physicians including Dr. Monique Soileau-Burke, of The Pediatric Center in Columbia and president of the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, will be part of a state-funded public education campaign to persuade parents to vaccinate their children.
Soileau-Burke said the wait for a vaccine has resulted in some children becoming severely ill with COVID-19. Some of those continue to have longer lasting side effects. Others who have not been sick have missed out on sleepovers, family gatherings and other common childhood experiences.
“Today we have an opportunity to give it all back to them,” she said.
Soileau-Burke told reporters she vaccinated two of her patients in her Howard County office prior to attending the news conference.
“Vaccinating our children is the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s safe. It’s effective.”
A poll in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 27% of parents said they would vaccinate their children immediately. Another 33% said they would wait and see. Three in 10 who responded said they “definitely would not” vaccinate their children.
Children appear to be less affected by COVID-19 but are not immune to the disease. Maryland Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan said pediatric cases, once about 6% of all infections, has increased to about 14% of all COVID patients in recent weeks.
Some of those infections have resulted in hospitalizations and, in rare cases, death. Roughly half of all children nationally who contract the illness experienced symptoms that lingered for weeks to months, Chan said.
The vaccine made available by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under an expansion of emergency use authorization for children 12 to 17 has raised concerns for some. Some parents have expressed concerns about safety and other side effects including inflammation of the heart and the tissue surrounding the heart. Those inflammatory conditions can also be caused by the virus, Chan said.
The most common side effects are similar to those of adults, including redness and swelling at the injection site, headache, mild fever and chills. The side effects typically resolve within a few days.
“It is also important to note that any side effects (of the vaccine) are much less severe than actually getting a COVID-19 infection and being ill,” Chan said.
Maryland expects an initial 181,000 shots for children. Each dose is about one-third of an adult vaccination. So far, about 23,000 doses have already arrived, and another 40,000 are in transit.
Chan said the state expects to see about one-third of the 515,000 children ages 5-11 seek a vaccination in the first month, similar to with children ages 12-17. Another third will likely follow that first wave, she said.
Health Department officials will dole out the doses to doctors and local health departments and other facilities. Pharmacies will get their doses directly from the federal government and are not counted with the state’s order.
To ensure equitable access, state officials said, clinics will be held locally around the state in schools.
Health Secretary Dennis Schrader said the state is asking physicians and other outlets to be prepared to issue second doses. The state is not, however, advising that a dose be reserved to ensure that each vaccinated child can get their second dose three weeks after the first.
“We’re going to allow the providers to self-manage, and they understand that three weeks later they need these doses,” Schrader said. “That’s why we have to carefully track exactly when the next allocations are going to come.”
And while the state is pushing parents to vaccinate their children, so far the shots will not be mandatory to attend school.
Hogan said the goal is to make sure parents have the information they need to make a decision.
“Ultimately this decision is up to and should be up to Maryland parents and families,” Hogan said. “Many parents are relieved and they have been looking forward to this day for many months and they’ve already decided to move forward immediately to protect their kids, to avoid unnecessary outbreaks and disruptive quarantines and help keep kids in school. I also know there are parents who want to do what’s best for their children but still have concerns or questions that they need answers to.”
So far, there is no real consensus among doctors about whether the vaccinations should be mandatory, according to Soileau-Burke, the Howard County pediatrician.
“I think we’ll need to take a look at data and make decisions as we progress,” she said. “I will say we’re pediatricians. We believe in vaccinations. Vaccinations save lives.”