Dr. Andrew Pavia thinks the phrase “herd immunity” has been overworked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we need to retire it,” said Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital. “We are probably not going to get some magic point of ‘herd immunity’ where the virus cannot spread any more.”
However, Pavia said in a community COVID-19 briefing Monday on Facebook Live, “the higher level of community immunity we can reach, the less spread there will be, the less restrictions we need on our activity, the less chance we’ll have new surges with the cold weather and the variants.”
To do that in Utah, more children — who make up about 30% of the state’s population — need to get vaccinated.
As of last week, children 12 and older are now eligible to get the Pfizer version of the COVID-19 vaccine. Pavia said clinical trials for the Moderna vaccine have produced data being submitted to federal regulators, so that version may be approved for children 12 and older within the next month.
Here are seven things parents need to know about getting their children the COVID-19 vaccine:
1. Parents can register now.
Most county and regional health districts can make appointments with a minimum wait time. Go to coronavirus.utah.gov to find the list of providers giving vaccines, and click on the link to the county or regional health department where you live. It’s important that children get an appointment for Pfizer version of the vaccine.
2. The vaccine works on adolescents.
During the clinical trials, Pavia said, some 2,600 children were tested and 16 of them came down with COVID-19 — and they were all in the group that got the placebo, not the vaccine. “That works out to be an efficacy of 100%,” Pavia said.
Also, he said, blood tests showed that children 12-to-15 “made antibodies at a level slightly higher than young adults,” the group between 16 and 29. The results were “not dramatically better, but somewhat better,” he said.
3. Side effects happen.
The side effects adolescents get from the COVID-19 aren’t too different from what their parents had, Pavia said.
Most, about 80%, will have a sore arm where they got the needle, he said.
A smaller percentage — between 20% and 30% after the second dose — may feel tired, or have muscle aches, joint aches, fever or occasionally headaches, Pavia said. Most effects last maybe a day, and may require some acetaminophen (Tylenol), he said.
“Side effects are a sign that young adults and teenagers have a vigorous immune system that has a great response to the vaccine and generates protection,” Pavia said.
And, as doctors have been saying for months, the side effects are mild compared to what COVID-19 can do to a person.
4. Children get COVID-19, too.
“We often talk about how children are at lower risk of severe disease,” Pavia said. “But low doesn’t mean no risk.”
Pavia noted that in Utah, more than 400 children have been hospitalized because of the coronavirus, and it’s estimated that two Utah children have died from it. “Nationally, more than 300 kids have died. That’s at least 50% more than in our worst flu epidemic,” he said.
Also, Pavia said, children run the risk of “long COVID” — symptoms that persist for months after the initial infection. “We don’t have great data on exactly how often that happens, but it’s pretty common, he said.
5. Vaccines beat the variants.
One advantage to the vaccine is that it works against the variants of the coronavirus. People who caught COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic and recovered are less protected against the variants, Pavia warned.
6. No more waiting for other vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week changed their guidelines regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and interaction with other vaccines.
The CDC says now that children getting vaccinated against COVID-19 can now take other childhood vaccines — Pavia mentioned the meningococcal vaccine and the pertussis-tetanus booster, or D-TAP, that kids usually get around age 12 — at the same time. Before last week’s advisory, doctors were recommending kids get other vaccines two weeks before the first COVID-19 vaccine dose, or waiting two weeks after the second dose. That meant a period of almost two months where children could not get other vaccines.
Now the question, Pavia said, is: “Do you want two sore arms and two vaccines on one day? Or would you like to separate them?”
7. Kids care about other people.
“By being vaccinated, they protect people around them,” Pavia said. “They help bring the pandemic to an end. They protect their circle of friends, their relatives, their grandparents and their community.”
This, Pavia said, “may actually be more important to adolescents — who care about saving the world — than it is to jaded adults, who sometimes look out for themselves more.”
Bonus: Keep the masks.
Until children are fully vaccinated — a time doctors define as two weeks after getting the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna — “I think teenagers should still be masking,” Pavia said.
Kids will be safe unmasked at outdoor activities, as long as they’re not too crowded, Pavia said. But in indoor settings, particularly with large groups and poor ventilation, the risk remains of catching the virus, he said.
Gov. Spencer Cox last week lifted his statewide order requiring students wear masks in schools during the last week of the school year — which in some districts is the week before Memorial Day, and in other districts the week after.
“I know the governor doesn’t agree with me, but, you know, that’s why he’s the governor and not me,” Pavia said.