By Anne Blythe
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has talked about her daughters many times as she helped steer the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the state gets to see them in a public service announcement about the kid-sized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine that has just become available for children ages 5 to 11.
Cohen, the proud mother of a 7- and 9-year-old, took her children on Saturday to get a first dose of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine approved last week for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Like most kids, my daughters don’t like shots,” Cohen told reporters at a briefing on Wednesday. “But we talked as a family about the reasons it was important to protect them from COVID just like we protect them from flu and other childhood illnesses like chicken pox.”
Then she showed a video that she said she hopes will help persuade other parents of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. In clinical trials, according to data reviewed by Cohen, the CDC and FDA, the kid-sized dose of the Pfizer vaccine, a third of the amount in the vaccines given to anyone 12 and older, is 90 percent effective at preventing COVID infection in the younger children.
“We love our kids so much and we want to make good decisions for them and their health, and I was really happy that we have a safe and effective COVID vaccine,” Cohen says in a video showing her hugging her daughters. “And I was really proud of them today that they got their vaccine. It was a huge sigh of relief for mom. So I hope everyone goes out and gets their COVID vaccine for their kids as soon as possible.”
Cohen posted photos of her daughters to her Twitter account on Saturday. There is one of her older daughter getting her vaccine. Another one shows the two girls together after getting their shots. The 9-year-old gave a thumbs-up while revealing the colorful Band-Aid covering the spot on her left arm where she got the shot. The younger girl is smiling with her hands raised in the air.
They might have been celebrating, too, because chocolate milk was coming to them after their shots, their mother said.
Cohen’s girls are among the more than 24,000 children in North Carolina who have received their first dose of the newly available vaccine. Though children can experience side effects such as a sore arm, fever, headaches or feeling tired for a few days, Cohen said her daughters experienced no side effects.
“We have plenty of vaccine supply across the state. Kids can get vaccinated at any location that has a smaller dose of the Pfizer vaccine available,” Cohen said. “This includes their pediatrician or doctor’s office or hospital. Unlike other vaccines, younger children can also get vaccinated at local pharmacies and grocery stores, making it even easier for parents to find a convenient location for them.”
Additionally, DHHS has worked with community partners to set up nine family COVID-19 vaccination centers in historically underserved communities that will be open for the next six weeks. The centers will be open on weekends and during the evening so parents don’t have to take their children out of school or miss work to get a vaccine.
The centers also will have vaccines available for people older than 12, as well as boosters. Spanish interpreters will be there, too.
Cohen and Charlene Wong, a Duke pediatrician and the DHHS assistant secretary for children and families, know that many parents might have questions about the vaccine and tried to provide answers to many at the briefing with reporters. They also encouraged parents to talk with their pediatricians and other trusted health care providers about any concerns they have.
Here are some of the questions and answers:
Q: Two physicians asserted in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece that a low number of children in this country have been hospitalized or died from COVID infections. But the piece also cited data that have not been peer reviewed and have been contested.
So, what’s the urgency to get the younger children vaccinated?
A: To date, North Carolina has seen more than 1,300 hospitalizations and 11 deaths in children under the age of 17, out of 244,902 cases, according to data on the DHHS COVID-19 dashboard. Cohen and Wong made the point that although the risks of hospitalization and death from COVID are rare in children in that age group, the virus can make them very sick.
Some children infected with COVID have come down with the multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or Mis-C, a rare condition in which their organs can become inflamed and in some cases can be deadly.
Children also can experience long-COVID symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, insomnia, trouble concentrating, muscle and joint pain, as well as a lingering cough, months after infection, according to the CDC.
“We are seeing that children can have longer-term side effects, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, lethargy, again, different kinds of tiredness. So we are seeing that in children and adults,” Cohen said. “And so I think what we want to do is say we have a tool here that is safe and effective at preventing your child from getting COVID in the first place. Let’s use that safe and effective tool to make sure they don’t get COVID.”
Q: How prevalent is long-COVID in children?
A: “It’s a known unknown,” Wong said, acknowledging that more research needs to be gathered on the issue. “I will say the patients who I know who have gotten long COVID-19, it’s really debilitating, really scary for the family. … The other thing that’s quite scary with it is that we don’t yet know what the best ways to treat it are and again, these are the types of symptoms that really impact what our children can do on a daily basis. Can they go to school or not? Can they play with their friends? Are they performing in school the way that they used to? …These can be really debilitating symptoms that can last for a really long time. It seems that it’s a known unknown, whereas we have a known safe and effective vaccine.”
Q: Is the state considering using incentives to get more children vaccinated?
A: Yes, Cohen said, but what those might be and how that might work has not been determined yet.
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Q: Will I have to pay to have my child vaccinated?
A: Cohen reiterated that COVID-19 vaccines are free to everyone even for those without health insurance and regardless of immigration status.
Q: Can children get a COVID vaccine at the same time as getting a flu vaccine or any of the other vaccines routinely given to children at their check-ups?
A: “The answer is yes, they sure can,” Wong said. “We want to make sure our kids are vaccinated against all the different diseases that we protect against. Certainly in the season we’re in now, we really hope that everyone is getting their flu vaccine and it is totally fine to get a flu vaccine as well as the COVID vaccine at the same time. And there are also, there are other routine childhood vaccines that can be given at the same time making it more convenient for parents.”
Q: Is there a goal for the percentage of children that North Carolina wants to see vaccinated before schools and other places can finally put the pandemic in the rear view mirror?
A: Cohen said it can be difficult to settle on such a number because the virus is changing and a new variant as contagious as or more contagious than the Delta variant could change the course of the pandemic very quickly.
Q: Is there one place that I can look to find out where vaccines for younger children are available?
Coronavirus by the numbers
According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:
- 18,371 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
- 1,497,677 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,095 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
- North Carolina has tracked COVID-19 re-infections in the case counts between March 1, 2021 and Sept. 20, 2021. All told, North Carolina has tracked 10,812 reinfections, 200 of those were in people who were previously vaccinated. Ninety-four people who were reinfected with COVID-19 have died.
- 1,454,082 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-COVID” survivors who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
- To date, 19,565,732 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 2020, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
- People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 13 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 75 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
- 357 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities, that’s up from 107 outbreaks in early August.
- As of Wednesday, 309 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
- As of Aug. 17, 6,262,599 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Ninety percent of people over the age of 65 have been completely vaccinated, while 56 percent of the total population is fully vaccinated.