Rebecca Asen said it will be a relief for her family when COVID-19 vaccines are approved for ages 5-11, likely later this week.

“We are counting down the days,” said Asen, of Falmouth. “We are going to be there on the first day, and get the first appointment available.”

Rebecca Asen of Falmouth, pictured Saturday, is happy that her 6-year-old daughter, Davida, can probably soon get vaccinated against COVID-19. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Asen’s daughter Davida, 6, is in first grade and getting vaccinated will unlock a lot more activities and a return to something closer to normal. Ballet classes, indoor play dates, indoor dining at restaurants, going to the movies and more visits with extended family are just some of the things on the family’s “to-do” list.

“She keeps asking us when she can get the shot for ‘the sickness,’” Asen said. “Once she’s vaccinated, we will feel a lot more comfortable resuming stuff. To kids, that’s everything.”

The Asens are one family of thousands across Maine who will have at least one family member become newly eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. Federal regulators are on the cusp of approving the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5-11, with shots in arms starting as soon as Wednesday or Thursday. The Food and Drug Administration gave its final approval on Friday, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must follow suit this week for the vaccines to become available.

Presuming the vaccine is given the final green light this week, the Pfizer vaccine’s formulation for ages 5-11 will be one-third the dosage given to adults.

But not everyone is as eager for their children to become vaccinated as the Asens.

PERSUADING PARENTS

An October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 27 percent of American families are ready to get their elementary-aged children vaccinated as soon as it’s approved. However, 35 percent say they definitely will not or will only do so if required. One-third are in the “wait and see” category.

Michelle Richards of Scarborough said she’s undecided about vaccinating her 10-year-old daughter. Richards said she plans on discussing it with her pediatrician before a planned school COVID-19 clinic next week. Richards said she’s worried about long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’re still trying to decide what we’re going to do,” Richards said. “Everything is still so new. I don’t feel like we should run out and do it right away. We want to gather more information.”

Aside from the logistical hurdles surrounding making the vaccine available for about 80,000 Maine children starting this week, public health officials say a big challenge will be persuading the “wait-and-see” parents about the value of the vaccine.

Dr. Andrew Tenenbaum, a pediatrician with InterMed, in an exam room in South Portland on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There’s definitely a lot of excitement,” said Dr. Andrew Tenenbaum, an InterMed pediatrician who has a practice in South Portland. “But I also deal with ambivalent parents daily. Many parents just want to wait and see. I tell them the vaccine has been studied, and there were no shortcuts in the studies. This is our best ticket out of … this pandemic.”

Tenenbaum said the most common misconception he’s heard from parents is that the vaccine could cause problems with fertility, even though the science clearly shows the COVID-19 vaccines do not affect fertility.

“Serious side effects that could cause a long-term health problem are extremely unlikely following any vaccination, including COVID-19 vaccination,” according to the U.S. CDC.

If the pattern for elementary schoolchildren follows the same pattern as what happened with their older brothers and sisters in middle and high schools – who have been eligible for the vaccines since this spring – immunization rates will vary in different parts of the state.

Four in five Cumberland County residents ages 12-19 are fully immunized, and nearly 70 percent in Knox and Lincoln counties. But vaccination rates in Piscataquis, Washington, Somerset and Lincoln counties for that age group are less than 46 percent.

Those geographic trends are similar when it comes to adult vaccinations, although vaccination rates for youths are significantly lower overall.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out in a media briefing last week that the percentage of people willing to get vaccinated can change over time as acceptance grows. That’s what happened with vaccines for adults.

For instance, 80 percent of people ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Maine, slightly above the national average of 78 percent. But a national Kaiser Family Foundation survey in September 2020, before vaccines became widely available in 2021, showed that only 63 percent of adults said they “definitely” or “probably” would get vaccinated.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a South Portland pediatrician, said when she tries to persuade parents in the “wait-and-see” category, she emphasizes that the more people are vaccinated, the closer to normal their children’s lives – and everyone’s lives – will be.

“I try to talk to parents about how the vaccines are important for the continuation of school and the programming that kids like – sports and activities – and the need for kids to have a life that’s more normal,” Blaisdell said. “When kids have to quarantine and miss school, that disruption in kids’ lives and parents’ lives is one of the issues I talk to parents most about.”

The Maine Department of Education reported Thursday that there have been 144 outbreaks in Maine schools in the past 30 days, and nearly 3,000 people testing positive. The department does not say how many of those people are students versus adults. But each outbreak typically means students who were exposed and are not vaccinated must quarantine at home and miss classes.

Blaisdell said the upcoming holidays are also a key point in favor of the vaccines. Children who get vaccinated in mid-November can be fully vaccinated by December.

“I try to get them to think about traveling to visit older grandparents or people in the family who may be immune-compromised, and children’s role in transmitting the disease,” Blaisdell said. “Kids clearly transmit the delta variant very efficiently, and they can do so with very few symptoms.”

Research shows being vaccinated significantly reduces the chances of transmitting the virus to someone else.

Asen said also top of mind is that by having Davida immunized, it will help protect other family members, including her 3-year-old sister and infant brother, grandparents and a 95-year-old great-grandmother.

And while it’s rare for children to get severe COVID-19 to the point that they are hospitalized or die, it’s not impossible. Children with COVID-19 have been known to contract multi-inflammatory syndrome, a very rare condition where organs can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according to the U.S. CDC.

THE ROLLOUT

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the largest health care network in the state, said they are working on standing up clinics across the state, primarily in schools and community clinics. Pharmacies and doctor’s offices will also be places where the vaccine will be available.

But Mills said to avoid pediatrician’s offices being swamped with requests for the vaccine, MaineHealth is working to quickly launch the school-based clinics. Some will start up the week of Nov. 8, and others the following week.

“This is our water on the pandemic fire,” Mills said. “We’re very geared up. The challenge is to hit the demand just right. The demand will be high for a while and then dissipate, but we don’t know how long the demand will be high. We want to do as many vaccine clinics as possible before Thanksgiving week so that kids can get the second dose in before Christmas week.”

The first and second doses for the Pfizer vaccine are spaced three weeks apart.

Depending on how many parents sign up their children for vaccination, having ages 5-11 immunized will increase the state’s overall vaccination rates by about 2.5 percent to 7.5 percent, Mills said.

“This is a critical age group to vaccinate,” Mills said. “This is a population that gathers a lot, not just in schools but on playgrounds and in other people’s homes. This is a population we believe are major transmitters of the disease.”

Sarah Staffiere adjusts a face covering on her daughter Natalie before school recently in Waterville. Staffiere, a senior laboratory instructor at Colby College, said she will be relieved when her two children can be vaccinated. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

For the Staffiere family in Waterville, the vaccines can’t come fast enough.

Sarah Staffiere’s son, Gabe, 8, has a rare genetic disorder, and the medications he takes suppress his immune system.

“The vaccine is going to totally change how we’ve been living our life,” Sarah Staffiere said. Gabe’s sister, Natalie, just turned 5 and will also get vaccinated. “We’ve been very, very cautious with everything we’re doing.”

Staffiere said although their children attend school in-person, they’ve also had to say “no” to a lot of activities that other families have gotten back to doing, to keep Gabe safe. Once their children are fully vaccinated, they can start saying “yes” again, whether it’s basketball, baseball, swim lessons, or even hugging their grandparents. Halloween will be an at-home candy hunt instead of trick-or-treating.

“Gabe brought a flier home this fall about playing soccer, and he said all my friends are doing this, can I play, and I had to say you have to wait,” Staffiere said. “He has missed out on a lot of social growth.”

Staffiere said her children have “carried the burden” because they’ve had to be so cautious since March 2020.

“I want them to not be afraid anymore,” Staffiere said. “But soon we can start to do all those things that we’ve held back on.”


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