Doctors: Vaccine cuts risk for kids

Inoculation rates for children lagging

Landon Burwell, son of Dr. David Burwell, chief quality officer for UPMCs Altoona, Bedford, Somerset and Western Maryland, receives a COVID-19 booster shot on Friday. Courtesy photo

Children are not at high risk from COVID-19, but it’s important for them to get vaccinated anyway, according to a pair of pediatricians.

Vaccinations greatly reduce the small personal risk kids face and reduce the risk of them transmitting the virus to people highly vulnerable to hospitalization and death.

It’s a risk that continues with the omicron variant, which is infecting significant numbers of vaccinated people, the doctors said.

But child vaccination rates in the region aren’t good, reflecting the poor vaccination rates for adults, according to Dr. Nader Younes of Pediatric Healthcare Associates in Altoona and Dr. Jessica Ericson, pediatric infectious diseases physician at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey.

While the risk to children is low, the new prevalence of omicron, the reopening of schools and the relaxing of mitigations have shown the risk for kids is greater than previously realized, Ericson said.

More children hospitalized

Evidence for that is the increasing number of kids hospitalized for COVID-19 in Hershey. There are 20 now, mostly unvaccinated, almost three times the prior peak in October, Ericson said. All those who come to the hospital need oxygen and some need to be on ventilators for as long as two weeks.

Two have died, she said.

“We have underestimated how much children can be affected,” she said. “We falsely developed the notion that children don’t get sick.”

At Pediatric Healthcare Associates, the number of COVID-19 patients has risen over the last few months to an average of about 10 a day, Younes said.

Prior to that, the number was “sporadic,” he said.

The idea that kids don’t get sick from COVID-19 is a myth, Younes said.

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is currently “seeing an uptick” in kids who tested positive and need to be hospitalized, according to Dr. David Burwell, chief quality officer for UPMCs Altoona, Bedford, Somerset and Western Maryland.

The surge in pediatric cases is probably due to omicron’s high transmissibility.

There seems to be some disagreement about other reports that omicron is milder than delta, the previous dominant variant.

UPMC Children’s ICU numbers have dropped, even as its cases have risen.

Pediatric Healthcare’s hospital admissions have stayed flat, even as its cases rose.

Hershey hasn’t had time to review its recent numbers, due to the surge, but Ericson is skeptical that omicron is milder.

The belief in its being milder began with early studies, but those were done in places where vaccination rates and prior infection rates were higher than in our area, perhaps providing protection that isn’t as widespread here, she said.

Society benefits

While there are breakthrough cases with omicron, those remain less frequent than infections for unvaccinated people, according to Ericson. And vaccinated people who get infected are less contagious. Vaccinated people are contagious for a shorter time.

Despite not providing total insurance against infection, vaccinations still do a great job preventing hospitalization and death, especially with boosters, according to Ericson and Younes.

Some families, however, are reluctant.

Only about 30 percent of the families who patronize Pediatric Healthcare Associates are getting their kids vaccinated, Younes said.

It’s disappointing, he said.

About half of the parents who don’t get their children vaccinated don’t get the shots themselves, he said.

Declining to get the shot shows a lack of appreciation for comparative risk, according to Ericson, who didn’t hesitate to get her kindergartner the shot.

If an unvaccinated child is infected with COVID-19, there’s a 2%– two in a hundred — chance something bad will happen, she said.

There’s just a 1 in 2 million chance of a bad side effect with vaccination, she said.

“Orders of magnitude (different),” Ericson said. “The math is clear.”

She shared other statistics with a different slant:

Early findings show that 3% to 5% of kids in the Hershey hospital catchment area who got COVID-19 ended up hospitalized, Ericson said.

About 1% of kids who got COVID-19 ended up in intensive care, she said. About half those in ICU need a ventilator.

Vaccine side effects


“The chance of your child getting very sick or dying is low,” Ericson said. “The chance that somebody’s child will get very sick is 100%.”

Side effects from vaccination, like a sore arm, fever and headache, last at most two days, Younes said.

A few cases have been reported of post-vaccination myocarditis in older children, Younes said.

But those have all resolved themselves, he said. COVID-19 itself has a 10 times higher chance of causing myocarditis.

The decision to vaccinate has become “a little bit political,” Younes said.

Some people argue that the development and approvals were rushed, he said. That’s not true — although the urgency of the situation led to the process being compressed.

“I understand the hesitancy,” said John Pastorek, pharmacy director for Mainline Pharmacy, which has provided vaccinations since early in the pandemic, at clinics and at its stores, including 10,000 vaccinations for younger kids and 20,000 for older kids.

The proportion of the child population in the region getting vaccinated is far smaller than for adults, he said.

Parents have expressed concern about vaccine interaction with growing bodies, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any science behind that,” he said. The parents are being careful, he said. “But we’ve got to do something to end the pandemic.”

Weekly test urged

He recommends rapid testing of all students and staff once a week — or once a month — in every school to identify those who are pre-symptomatic but contagious.

Infected people can be contagious for two days before symptoms appear.

Peak transmission may last until three to five days after symptoms start, and contagiousness can last up to 10 days after symptoms start, he said.

It could be a problem adopting such a policy due to limitations on the number of available tests, he said.

“We have not explored that idea here,” said Paula Foreman, spokeswoman for the Altoona Area School District. “That would be a school board decision.”

Since the beginning of the school year, 125 Altoona staffers and 537 students have tested positive for COVID-19, including 38 students this week, Foreman said.

“We’ve seen an increase in COVID activity,” Foreman said.

The district asks parents to keep students home if they have symptoms and to notify the district if their child tests positive, she said.

The district conducts contact tracing to identify those who need to be notified for quarantine.

Pediatric vaccinations by local county, ages 5-11:

Blair 337 partial; 892 full; Bedford 46, 151; Cambria 488, 882; Centre 538, 2,891; Clearfield 159, 354; and Huntingdon 83, 165.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.


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