NPR’s David Folkenflik speaks with Dr. Noreen Womack, an Idaho pediatrician, on preparing to vaccinate children in an area where many people are hesitant to vaccinate.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, GUEST:
As the number of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to rise, one of the big questions many people still have is, what about children? When can they be vaccinated? For many who are parents, few questions are more pressing. None of the COVID vaccines are yet approved for use in small children. And that could be about to change. Last week, the White House announced its plan to roll out Pfizer’s COVID-19 injections to children ages 5 to 11 and soon, once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control each give the green light.
The Biden administration says it has bought enough doses for all 28 million children in that age group, but that doesn’t guarantee all of them will get the vaccine. How are doctors preparing for this important new moment? We wanted to know more, so we contacted pediatrician Noreen Womack of St. Luke’s Children’s in Eagle, Idaho. dr. Womack, welcome.
NOREEN WOMACK: Thank you.
FOLKENFLIK: We just caught up with you after you had a pretty full day meeting kids and their parents. What do you see out there?
WOMACK: Well, this winter versus last winter, we’re seeing a little bit of everything again — croup, RSV, which is a respiratory syncytial virus, no flu yet, and of course COVID.
FOLKENFLIK: So let’s talk about that. Idaho is lagging behind in vaccination rates. Just over half of adults have been fully vaccinated, state government figures show. Why are those rates so low?
WOMACK: That’s a very good question. I think there is still a lot of uncertainty among many people. You know, was this too fast? Will this cause infertility? Despite the data to the contrary, there is still a lot of hesitation. And alas, not just hesitation – from some people, it’s just honest – what I would call willful ignorance.
FOLKENFLIK: Why do you think it is?
WOMACK: Yeah, I’m not sure. They – if you ask them, they call it freedom. They just want to be able to do the things they want to do. I see a lot, it’s my body. You can’t tell me what to do. And I even saw that on a plate. Someone put that sign on their young kindergarten student not far from where I work.
FOLKENFLIK: There was a recent CBS News poll that found that about 37% of parents with children between the ages of 5 and 11 would clearly have their children vaccinated. Thirty-five percent said no. And 26% said maybe. And those numbers seem to be roughly consistent with whether or not the parents themselves have been vaccinated. What do you personally hear from parents?
WOMACK: I think parents want to do the right thing. I think there’s so much misinformation that, I think, for them, they think it’s safest to do nothing, right? So we’ll just wait and see. Will there be more data? You know, maybe they’ll know more in a year. So I think that’s part of the parental hesitation. And of course they are their children. So they want to be extra careful and make sure that, you know, the right thing to do.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, it sounds like if you kind of get what you’re talking about, it can get controversial in there — in the exam rooms.
WOMACK: Yes. You know, it’s — luckily, the people are generally cordial, especially one-on-one. Where I’ve seen a lot of contention and just, you know, the raising of votes is actually at the school districts and the state school boards. There has been a lot of fighting and fury. In northern Idaho, three school board members have resigned. They had to cancel a board meeting because it wasn’t safe.
There is at least one member I know who has a police escort to go to and from her school board meetings. She has to park far away and then be walked out by the police because she is concerned about violence. But in my daily life it doesn’t look like that. Thank God.
FOLKENFLIK: So give us an idea of what it looks like from your perspective. You are in the room with the parents of a child. They think about these things. Vaccines are a political focal point. There is resentment even wearing masks. How do you break through the anger or the fear?
WOMACK: It’s very hard unless you’re already in a relationship with the family. And I have to say, I actually mainly work in the schools. I work in a number of Title I schools. So I do clinics at school.
And in the school district where I work, you know, there’s no mask mandate. And when you talk about me being in a room with the family, often, you know, I wear a mask, and she doesn’t. And that kind of tells me a lot of what I need to know there.
I find, again, on a one-on-one basis, especially if you’re in a relationship with them, you’ve known them for a few years, you can have those conversations. And that’s why I think it will be a good idea. And the national American Academy of Pediatrics did say they want the pediatric COVID vaccine to go to pediatric clinics, which is smart because who knows better than a pediatrician how to advise on vaccines? You know, we – that’s our bread and butter.
I’m not saying it’s easy. But we certainly have a lot of practice in it. And so, you know, we can have those open conversations. And I think that will be very helpful in hopefully increasing vaccination in children.
FOLKENFLIK: We now have the potential, the chance of a vaccine for these young children aged 5 to 11 years. And yet there is this delta variant. And there is resistance that you have just spoken so eloquently about. Are you concerned? Are you hopeful? How do you approach the next phase of this pandemic?
WOMACK: I think all of us pediatricians are thinking about the vaccine messages to our families. Some of the things I will definitely mention to families considering getting the COVID vaccine for their children is that I think COVID vaccines have had the most intense safety monitoring ever in the history of vaccine monitoring, that there are ten and thousands of patients have been studied from six months and older, all showing that the vaccines are safe and effective. And let’s not forget that we know that COVID-19 is not good for children. Even though they don’t get that sick, you know, more and more kids in Idaho are losing their parent or their uncle or their grandparent. I think we’ll all address that as well.
FOLKENFLIK: We have the voice of Dr. Noreen Womack heard. She is a pediatrician at St. Luke’s in Eagle, Idaho. dr. Womack, thank you.
WOMACK: Thank you.
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