Since Pfizer’s vaccine for kids was approved for kids ages 12 and older, parents have been faced with the dilemma of whether to vaccinate their kids. Some are concerned their kids will have a negative reaction. Others fear the COVID-19 vaccine for kids is not thoroughly researched and tested. And some parents claim children do not get COVID-19—so why should they be inoculated against it? We spoke to Brian McMahon, M.D., Chair of the Pediatric Department at Staten Island’s Richmond University Medical Center about why he recommends parents—despite their fears or beliefs—vaccinate their kids against COVID-19.
Why should kids get the COVID-19 vaccine?
The main reason kids and teens should get the vaccine is that “young people can become very sick with the COVID-19 illness,” according to Dr. McMahon. Although COVID-19 in children is sometimes milder than in adults, some kids can get severe lung infections, become very sick, and require hospitalization. Children can also get long-lasting symptoms that affect their future health and well-being.
Dr. McMahon says that in the beginning of the pandemic, he saw several teenagers hospitalized with pneumonia. “The nineteen-year-old was lucky to survive,” he says. Since then, Dr. McMahon and his team at RUMC have treated two 16-year-olds with multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, which is caused by COVID-19. “Their hearts were putting out only forty to forty-five percent of the volume that they needed to,” he says. “Just because you’re younger doesn’t mean you’re immune to the illness.”
Another reason to ensure kids and teens get the COVID-19 vaccine is it will reduce the spread of COVID-19. Fewer cases means kids can return to school and other activities. This benefits their mental health and the mental health of their parents. It can also help stop other variants from emerging.
Kids with COVID-19, even those who are not exhibiting symptoms, can infect both adults and other kids. “A child might get it and do quite well,” Dr. McMahon says, “but give it to a parent or grandparent who might not do as well with it.” He recalls a family he saw in July 2021, as the pandemic seemed to be waning. “Everyone was vaccinated except for their one-year-old and they went to the Bahamas,” he says. “Sure enough the one-year-old got it and gave it to the mother.”
Who should get vaccinated?
“Faced with the prospect of an illness that could be deadly, I advise everybody to get the vaccine when it’s been approved for their age,” Dr. McMahon says. Right now, that is everyone older than 12 years. (Approval for the COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11 is expected soon.) Even kids (and adults) who have had COVID-19 or have the antibodies for COVID-19 should receive the vaccine, according to Dr. McMahon. “You might have a high level of natural antibodies, but a year or so down the road, that may be decreased. That may be insufficient, and you may get sick again,” he says.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for kids under 12?
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 1,000 cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining outside the heart) happening after some COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S., this number is relatively small. Considering the hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses that have been administered, these reactions are very rare. Also, as Dr. McMahon notes, “myocarditis is a temporary condition that could be managed by either non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen or Advil, or by steroids. Contrast that with the very serious acute or chronic illness that can occur after contracting COVID-19.”
Dr. McMahon also debunks a concern he has heard that the vaccine (or mRNA) will be incorporated into a teen’s DNA and interfere with their reproductive system. “Messenger RNA is eliminated very quickly from the body,” he explains. “The messenger RNA doesn’t persist and doesn’t do any permanent damage.”
And to parents who claim the research is too new, Dr. McMahon assures that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC take vaccine safety precautions very seriously. Their speedy process did not sacrifice precision—rather multiple studies were done simultaneously rather than one after the other. “The vaccine has been given to hundreds of millions of people already, so it’s got a good track record,” he adds.
Despite all this positive data, however, Dr. McMahon says that about one-third of his patients refuse to give their kids the COVID-19 vaccine. He strongly urges all parents to inoculate their kids against COVID-19. He even offers the shot in his office. “Vaccinating children is going to help us reach that concept of herd immunity where we’re all going to be better off,” Dr. McMahon says.