Annie Brynga, 13, and her mother Becca, seen in Essex on Thursday, May 13, 2021. Becca is concerned that Annie will be given a cover up inoculation. Photo by Glenn Russell / VTDigger
Becca Brynga of Milton, Vermont, is a pro-vaccine.
Brynga received her second dose of Pfizer about a month ago, and her two children – a 13-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son – have received every vaccine available to them.
But the relative novelty of the Covid-19 vaccines has given Brynga a break from getting her children vaccinated right away, she said in an interview last week.
Brynga isn’t alone, according to pediatricians in Vermont. They have asked a growing number of questions from concerned parents – usually self-vaccinated – about whether the vaccines are safe for their children and what the long-term health effects may be.
Now that children between the ages of 12 and 15 are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, pediatricians will play an important role in getting wary parents on board by vaccinating their children sooner rather than later.
“I think the key is to be a parent and just sleep at night knowing that if something were to be questioned or go wrong, your child will have someone you trust,” Brynga said.
‘Time is of the essence’
More than anecdotal evidence suggests there are a significant number of nervous parents. Among those with children ages 12 to 15, only about three in 10 said they would get their child a vaccination as soon as it was available, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study published last week.
About 25% said they would take a wait and see approach.
But “time is of the essence,” said Denise Aronzon, a pediatrician with Timber Lane Pediatrics, a Chittenden County Primary Care Health Partners practice.
Vermont has so far avoided a dreaded fourth wave of the coronavirus, but the spread of new and more contagious variants still poses a risk, Aronzon said.
“The sooner we get large numbers of Vermonters vaccinated,” she said, “the sooner the pandemic will subside.”
Pediatricians come in, who can count themselves among the few that parents trust with the health of their children.
Pediatricians “trust parents more than medicine or science in general,” said Devon Greyson, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who studies public health communications.
Dr. Joe Nasca says that when parents ask him about vaccinating their children, he often refers to a photo of his six grandchildren and four grandchildren, all of whom have been or will be vaccinated. File photo by Mike Dougherty / VTDigger
That’s especially true for pediatricians like Joe Nasca, who has had an independent practice in the city of Georgia since 2006 and has worked in Franklin County since 1991. Nasca said he is moving into the second generation of many of his patients.
Their parents know that if they ask him about vaccines, they will get a clear story, Nasca said. He often points to a photo in his office of his six children and four grandchildren, all of whom have been or will be vaccinated.
“That’s probably the shortest way to explain how important you think something is: trying to treat everyone the way you treat your family,” Nasca said.
‘Listen and understand’
It’s a similar story for Colleen Moran, a pediatrician at Lamoille Health Partners in Morrisville. Moran said she cried more Thursday than in years – with relief – when she took her 12-year-old daughter to a walk-in vaccination site.
But there isn’t a comprehensive approach to public health messaging, Greyson said. Some find the science behind the vaccines comforting. Others just want to know, is this safe for my kids?
“As a pediatrician, it’s so important to listen and understand what’s leaving a little unrest,” said Moran.
Joshua Kantrowitz, a pediatrician at St. Johnsbury Pediatrics, a division of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, said he has also noticed an increase in inquiries from parents.
Kantrowitz said parents who come in for a routine check-up will often ask for his opinion on the vaccines when they go out the door – ‘hand on the doorknob’ questions, he calls them.
“The decision-making is so complex,” said Kantrowitz. “I didn’t understand until I was a parent, when I was making decisions for my own children.”
But this informal exchange of medical information is not an option for people who do not have a primary care provider, or do not have direct access to a medical professional.
Kantrowitz added that one of the biggest challenges for patients in his environment is reliable access to transportation.
Ask the pediatrician
To combat these barriers, the Vermont Department of Health has launched a series of virtual panels organized by pediatricians to give parents an opportunity to ask questions about the vaccine and their children.
The first of eight panels was held Thursday night and hosted by Leah Costello and Elizabeth Hunt, Aronzon’s colleagues at Timber Lane Pediatrics.
Parents asked if there is an increased risk of vaccinating a child with asthma (answer: no, the vaccine is safe for children with mild to severe cases), or if it could affect their children’s ability to be have children (answer: no, there is no evidence that the vaccines affect fertility).
The panel also included a video message from Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont division of the American Academy of Pediatrics, deconstructing the science behind the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
It’s like a handwritten recipe passed down within the family, Bell said, but for a spike protein instead of a bolognese sauce.
‘Once then [the spike protein] is made, the recipe disappears and the mRNA just falls apart a little bit, ”said Bell.
Vaccination sites for children 12-15 years old
Vermont’s vaccine stock is in much better shape than it was in December, when the first Covid-19 shot was administered. In addition to involving parents, the state is working to ensure that children have access to the vaccine.
A list of vaccination sites in schools that are accessible to 12-15 year olds is now available on the Agency of Education website.
Brynga said she and her daughter had spoken about their concerns after Wednesday’s announcement. Ultimately, Brynga planned that her daughter would get vaccinated by the end of May.
It gives them time to do a little more research – and, of course, talk to the pediatrician.
“It still makes me a little nervous, and will probably think about it at night,” Brynga said. “But she’s also a responsible child, and teaching her how to make her own decisions is also important.
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