Getting a COVID-19 vaccine was never on Angela Morris’s to-do list. She was wary of taking a relatively “new” vaccine, and wasn’t concerned with getting sick as her family rarely ventured outside the house during the pandemic.
Plus, “I really thought COVID was kind of like the flu and wasn’t this big of a deal,” says Morris, who lives in Sidney, Arkansas. “I was so wrong.”
Morris learned that the hard way. When COVID-19 struck her family last summer, four members of the household became ill, her 14-year-old son, Alexx, the most severely. In the emergency room, his oxygen saturation measured an alarming 19%, substantially below the 95% considered normal.
Alexx spent three months in Arkansas Children’s Hospital — half of that time in the intensive care unit, where he was intubated. During his stay, he experienced multiple organ failure, and several times his blood pressure dropped so precipitously that doctors and nurses rushed to his bedside to revive him.
“They kept a crash cart right outside his room,” Morris says.
Finally discharged from the hospital in late October, Alexx has spent the intervening months relearning how to breathe, talk, walk, and eat. Hours of speech, physical, and occupational therapy still lie ahead.
“At this point he’s able to walk 30 feet at one time with a walker and help from three people,” says Morris.
Exhausted and traumatized by her son’s ordeal, Morris is also wracked with guilt.
“We didn’t get the vaccines,” she says. “I wish we would have.”
She made sure that she and Alexx got COVID-19 shots before they left the hospital for home, and others in the family have followed suit.
This scenario is playing out across the country as the pandemic continues, and deaths and disability cases continue to climb. Many parents who were opposed to COVID-19 vaccines, or not yet convinced of their benefits, have seen the worst of the virus firsthand and subsequently had a change of heart. Some of them are speaking out.
Take Jeff Trefry of Spokane, Washington. Like Morris, he was initially skeptical of COVID-19.
“I posted stuff on Facebook talking about how COVID wasn’t real and it was just another virus and they were blowing it out of proportion,” he told a local outlet, KREM-TV, in November.
But Trefry’s views changed when his daughter Jadyn, 18, got sick with COVID-19 last September. What started as mild respiratory symptoms and the loss of taste and smell quickly morphed into a life-threatening crisis.
In the emergency department, Jadyn was diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC), a COVID-19-associated condition in which the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs become dangerously inflamed.
A few hours later, Trefry said, “I got the most gut-wrenching phone call a parent will ever receive. They told me that my daughter was in the critical care unit and that her prognosis was poor.”
Fortunately, Jadyn pulled through and isn’t expected to have lasting health issues. But her dad says the experience will haunt him forever. He’s now a vaccine champion, urging other parents not to make the same mistake he did.
“If you’re on the fence about getting the vaccination, this isn’t about you,” he told local media. “It’s about our children.”
It was a similar story for Janis Bennett of Saskatchewan, Canada. She changed her tune about the virus and the vaccines when her son Maverick, age 5, was hospitalized for severe COVID-19 in September.
“I didn’t think it would get us,” she told the Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC). “If you’re unsure about getting vaccinated, you should really think twice about it because this virus is real.”
Paul A. Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, isn’t surprised by the trend.
“If you look at parent activist groups, like Families Fighting Flu, Meningitis Angels, or National Meningitis Association, it’s the same story,” he says. “These are parents whose children have suffered or died from vaccine-preventable diseases who weren’t vaccinated, and they all say the same thing: ‘I can’t believe this happened to me,’ until it happens to them, and then they become activists to educate other parents about the disease or about the vaccine.”
A vaccination plateau
Like adults, unvaccinated children are more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than vaccinated kids.
Yet “we are seeing a real stalling of vaccination of children,” says Yvonne Maldonado, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine and chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “This is true even among children whose parents are vaccinated themselves.”
As of early February 2022, only 30% of children ages 5 to 11 had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 22% of children in this age group were fully vaccinated, according to an update from the AAP. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, 65% had received one dose while just 55% were fully vaccinated. A study from Fordham University found that overall around 40% of parents intended to have their kids vaccinated.
One reason for the dismal numbers: “Many people don’t think COVID is as serious in children,” Maldonado says. Of course, it can be, she reminds them. In addition, after a COVID-19 infection, , kids can experience longer-term fatigue, headaches, insomnia, muscle and joint pain, and cough. And there may be other people in the family, especially those with immunocompromising conditions or older adults, who could contract the disease through unvaccinated children.
Vaccine hesitation among parents is complicated and paradoxical, adds Offit.
“On the one hand, people see children as vulnerable, so they’re nervous about inoculating them with a biological agent that they don’t necessarily understand,” he says. “But it’s also true that we tend to think of our children as invulnerable. We never think it’s going to happen to us.”
That miscalculation can be fatal, however. And the odds of harm could multiply as states and school districts consider pulling back on mask mandates.
“Right now, COVID is one of the top 10 causes of death for children,” says Maldonado. “But even if your child doesn’t get hospitalized or die, they may still suffer long COVID symptoms.”
Long COVID-19 concerns
That’s what Talia Iracheta of Chicago fears. She, her partner, and their two children all came down with COVID-19 in December right before Christmas. While most of her family recovered quickly, her son Sebastian, age 13, got worse. They went to John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County, Illinois, after he started coughing up blood and his breathing became labored.
“His airways were obstructed,” Iracheta says. “And his oxygen saturation levels kept decreasing, even with oxygen. It was so scary.”
When Sebastian was diagnosed with MISC, he was transferred to the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital. He stayed for 12 days, eight of them in the ICU, but finally returned home in January.
Sebastian has a long road ahead. He receives physical and respiratory therapy and will see a pulmonologist regularly for at least a couple of years, Iracheta says. She hopes his lungs won’t be permanently damaged.
Iracheta had received the vaccine because her work at a skilled nursing facility requires it. But she hadn’t been in a hurry to get her children, who take classes from home, vaccinated — a decision she now regrets.
“I had some flawed thinking, like, ‘I’m the only one who goes out to work. I’m vaccinated,’” she says. “I just had this false sense of safety that somehow we had time. Clearly I was wrong.”