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Texas Panhandle pediatrician: The best time to get kids vaccinated against COVID-19 is now

A 13-year-old receives his first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination. The FDA may soon authorize the vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11.
Shafkat Anowar
A 13-year-old receives his first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination. The FDA may soon authorize the vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11.

Kids older than 5 are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Pediatrician Dr. Celeste Caballero answers questions about the shots.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was recently authorized for children ages 5 to 11. Older children, between the ages of 12 and 17, have been eligible for several months. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, over 6,000 Lubbock County kids under age 15 have gotten the shot.

But some families still have questions. To answer those, Covenant Health Medical Group Pediatrician Dr. Celeste Caballero recently joined Senior Reporter Sarah Self-Walbrick in the Texas Tech Public Media studio.

Sarah Self-Walbrick: We’ve all heard that COVID is mild for most kids. I say most because there are obviously tragic examples, including locally, of that not being the case. So why does this age group need to be vaccinated? 

Dr. Celeste Caballero: One of the biggest reasons we need to focus on is COVID has resulted in a huge burden of disease for children under 18 years of age. So just to give you some context, at the very beginning of the pandemic, children only made up about 3% of COVID cases in the U.S. And as of this week, they make up 24% of COVID cases in the U.S. So the Delta surge actually brought on a huge uptick of COVID cases in children.

As you said before, yes, the general population of children that get COVID will only have mild to moderate kind of flu-like symptoms that lasts about seven to 10 days. But there are a small group of pediatric patients that can really have terrible complications with COVID.

And lastly, I would say, a lot of people thought at the beginning of this pandemic, that children can't spread the virus. And we're actually seeing that is not true -- children absolutely can be infected with COVID and they can spread COVID. And so getting your child vaccinated for COVID-19 means that they can stay in school, they can visit with friends and family and they can get back to normal sooner.

How do the pediatric doses work?

The COVID-19 vaccine for children is similar to adults in that there are two doses of vaccine. Right now, the Pfizer vaccine is authorized for children under 18 and is now approved for ages 5 to 11. So the Pfizer vaccine will be given in two doses, the second dose given three weeks after the first and the dose is actually a third of the dose of the adult vaccine.

What are the most common side effects after a kid gets vaccinated against COVID-19? 

The most common side effects are going to be typical side effects that you would get with really any vaccine, like swelling at the injection site, redness at the injection site, they may feel a little fatigued, maybe have some headache, body aches, chills, fever. But again, remember, these symptoms are very benign. Your child will only feel the symptoms for maybe 24 to 48 hours, and then they will go away.

When’s the best time to get the shot? And are there any reasons to wait? 

One reason to not get the vaccine is if you are currently ill with COVID. So if you currently have COVID, we cannot vaccinate you. But once you finish your isolation period for your illness, you can get the get vaccinated and that goes for children.

There are no other reasons to wait. I think the best time to get the COVID-19 vaccine for your child is now. So I would recommend parents call their pediatrician's office.

We’re also doing flu shots right now and maybe some other vaccines as well. Any advice on doing those all at once? Or should you space them out?

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that you should be up to date on your childhood vaccines right now. A lot of parents have sort of fallen behind in getting their kids vaccinated. So it's completely fine to give your child the COVID-19 vaccine as well as any other childhood vaccines they are due for as well as an influenza vaccine. So there's no contraindication to getting the COVID-19 vaccine with any of the other vaccines at the same time.

What are some of the most common questions parents are asking about the shots? 

I get a lot of questions from parents about side effects of the vaccines that can be very scary to them. One of the concerns that parents have is the potential for maybe a myocarditis picture with the COVID vaccine. Myocarditis is actually inflammation that can sort of surround the heart and can cause chest pain, shortness of breath and so forth. And we have seen some rare cases of myocarditis in young teen males and young adult males with the COVID vaccine when it was rolled out to the adolescent population. But it should be noted that an actual COVID-19 illness can cause a very serious myocarditis that can hospitalize your child and can cause maybe even long-term damage to the heart tissue itself. So again, the benefits of the vaccine really outweigh the risk.

The other thing I'm hearing from parents is they're concerned that their young girls, and young women, adolescents, will become infertile from the vaccine. That is something I'm hearing time and time again. I want to reassure all the parents out there that this vaccine does not cause infertility. There have been studies on this, there has been data collected on the fertility of females as they're taking the COVID vaccine and we are just not seeing that. The data does not support that.

I will tell you, as a physician, as a scientist, as someone who is aware of genetics and how genes work, there's nothing in the vaccine that allows that mRNA, which is a sort of a cousin to DNA, nothing allows that mRNA to be integrated into your DNA. Nothing.

A couple of weird things that sort of flow on social media regarding the COVID vaccine is there's this thought that the COVID vaccine can cause magnetism in your body and the spike protein may be a toxin. None of that is true.

Those little ears have heard so much about COVID in the past 18 or so months. But what’s your advice on talking to kids about getting vaccinated? 

I think it's so important for parents to do three simple things regarding talking about the COVID vaccine with their children. Number one, they really need to provide just simple reassurance to children, reminding them that doctors and researchers are doing everything they can to keep them safe and healthy. It's important for parents to tell children that these vaccines will keep them healthy and allow them to get back to the normalcy that we all enjoyed before the pandemic.

The other thing parents should do is monitor their children's media and monitor for symptoms of anxiety. So it's really important that parents are not allowing young children to see very frightening images. You really need to talk to your children about what they're seeing on social media, and TV and radio, about the COVID pandemic and really ask them questions and talk about what they're feeling. Those signs of anxiety in children are kind of different than adults. So children may be more cranky, they might be more clingy. They might not be sleeping as well, or they might seem too distracted. It's really important that if parents are picking up on these signs of anxiety.

And third, it's really important for parents to be great role models with the COVID-19 vaccine. I would encourage parents to get vaccinated for COVID and to be positive about it and express that to their children.

And what about after a kid is vaccinated? What COVID mitigation measures should they still try to do? 

It really is encouraged to continue the mitigation measures that have been propagated and encouraged this year.

So children really should still be wearing masks in school, that is still the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And that goes for teachers, visitors to schools, they should all be wearing masks at this time.

Also, families and children really should be avoiding crowds indoors, especially in poorly ventilated areas. If you're in that situation where you're indoors, and it's pulled poorly ventilated. Even if you're vaccinated, just put a mask on. You really need those layers of protection there still, and I would still recommend parents continue to have your children wash their hands sanitize those surfaces at home.

But I would say if a large uptake of this COVID vaccine occurs, meaning if a large population of the adults and children in the U.S. can be vaccinated, like higher than 90% of children and adults, then in about a year or so maybe we can talk about doing away with some of these mitigation measures.

This interview was edited for time and clarity.

Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at saselfwa@ttu.edu. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.

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Sarah Self-Walbrick