Leah Casanave held her 2-year-old daughter, Eloise Manderfeld, on her lap and distracted her with a sticker while a nurse injected the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine into the girl’s upper thigh.
Young Eloise shed a few tears, but Casanave quickly consoled her.
Then Diana Rogel held her 2-year-old son, Michael Rogel Kronschnabel, on her lap. Distracted by elephant and giraffe finger puppets, he barely squawked when the nurse administered his first dose of Moderna’s vaccine for little kids.
“He did better than I thought he would,” Rogel said.
The shots were the first doses of the kid-sized vaccines administered by the Douglas County Health Department on Tuesday. They followed Saturday’s approval of the shots for the nation’s youngest children by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They won’t be the last. The Health Department had about 150 children scheduled for shots Tuesday, with more clinics slated for later this week.
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The vaccines are expected to be available soon through additional local health departments and at pediatric and family practice clinics and some pharmacies. The federal Vaccines.gov website now has been updated to include vaccines for young children. The website notes that those doses still are being shipped and advises checking back for updates or contacting a health care provider or local health department for offerings.
The Pfizer vaccine is approved for children ages 6 months to 4 years. It previously had been OK’d for those 5 and older. The Moderna vaccine now is authorized for ages 6 months to 17 years. It previously had been approved for adults ages 18 and older.
Health officials, from the federal to the local level, have stressed the importance of the vaccinations for young children.
Both Casanave and Rogel said they were excited to finally be able to vaccinate their youngsters, both of whom were born during the pandemic.
“I’m just ecstatic that it’s finally happening,” said Casanave, the Health Department’s division chief for community health, nutrition and clinical services. “We’ve waited long enough.”
Rogel said she got vaccinated and breastfed in order to pass on her antibodies to her son. While pregnant, she mostly worked from home during the pandemic, going only to the doctor’s office.
“Now that we get this chance,” she said, “it’s absolutely thrilling to me.”
Still, not all parents are expected to get their youngest children vaccinated immediately. And it remains to be seen how many families will go ahead with shots for their littlest kids. An April Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that about one in five parents of children under age 5 were eager to get their child vaccinated right away. A larger share — 38% — said they planned to wait to see how the vaccine is working for others.
In Nebraska, vaccination rates for older children have not been particularly high.
Some 40.5% of Nebraska children ages 5 to 17 have been vaccinated, which ranks 27th among states and lags the U.S. rate of 43.4%, according to a World-Herald analysis of CDC data. Iowa is even further behind at 36.7%. In four states, including Wyoming, fewer than 25% of kids ages 5 to 17 are vaccinated.
Nebraska has done a much better job of vaccinating older people. Some 75.3% of those 18 and older and 92.7% of those 65 and older are vaccinated. Both figures rank 25th among states.
While children throughout the pandemic have been less likely to become seriously ill, require hospitalization or die from COVID, health officials emphasize that they still can suffer such outcomes. COVID-19 has become one of the top 10 causes of pediatric death, according to Douglas County health officials, and tens of thousands of children and teens across the U.S. have been hospitalized because of the virus.
Children also can get long COVID, with symptoms lingering for weeks and months after their infections.
Dr. Sharon Stoolman, a pediatric hospital physician at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, said vaccination shortens the duration of the illness and reduces the likelihood of hospitalization. For families of young children, even a couple of days in the hospital is a big deal.
In addition, she said, several studies have shown that vaccination reduces the likelihood children will develop Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, a serious condition associated with COVID-19 in which different parts of the body, from the heart to gastrointestinal organs, can become inflamed. Kids who develop it don’t necessarily have serious cases of COVID initially but develop the inflammatory condition several weeks later.
While Children’s hadn’t seen much MIS-C for a while, a couple of patients were admitted with it in the past month.
“I’m excited to be able to offer that protection and a little bit of comfort to parents,” Stoolman said.
Casanave said she chose to vaccinate her daughter in part to protect their family. Eloise had COVID in January. She was asymptomatic but gave the virus to two family members.
Another concern, Casanave said, is that researchers don’t know the effects of long COVID on kids. “Even though she’s had it and she’s got some immunity right now, I still feel the need to get her vaccinated,” she said.
Rogel said she wanted to give Michael every defense against the virus that she could. Her 9-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter already are vaccinated. “Prevention is big for us in our household,” she said.
Kara Jermain, another Omaha mom, made a Tuesday appointment to get her son, 2½-year-old Finn, vaccinated. Finn was born weeks before the pandemic shutdowns began. He had a small heart defect that was corrected with surgery.
But the family has played it safe ever since, she said.
Only in the last couple of weeks, Jermain said, has Finn gone to day care. Previously, he was home with a nanny who wore a mask. The family largely has gathered outdoors with close friends and family, but he hasn’t yet had the usual play dates.
“Today feels a little like Christmas for me, because we’ve been waiting a really long time for this,” Jermain said.
She said she shed some tears when she heard the vaccine was finally approved for youngsters.
“I feel like we worked really hard to keep him from getting COVID until he could get vaccinated,” Jermain said. “I can’t prevent him from getting COVID forever, but I just wanted to have every tool in my toolbox to do that.”
The Pfizer vaccine for kids requires two shots taken two weeks apart and a third shot at least two months later. Each shot is one-tenth the adult dose. The Moderna vaccine is given as two shots four weeks apart. Each contains a quarter of the adult dose.
Experts say both vaccines are safe and effective. Because they haven’t been tested against each other, there’s no way to tell whether one is better.
Casanave said she chose the Pfizer shot for Eloise because it had a slightly lower likelihood of side effects such as sore limbs and fevers, although she acknowledged she may regret having to take her daughter to get three shots.
Rogel said she chose Moderna for Michael because that’s what she received and what she passed along to him when she was breastfeeding.
Health officials are encouraging parents with questions about the vaccines to consult their doctors or the Health Department for general questions.
Casanave said she’ll encourage parents to take whatever is available from their provider. “Efficacy is going to be great in both of them,” she said, “and you can’t really go wrong with either or.”
World-Herald staff writer Henry J. Cordes contributed to this report.