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COVID vaccine rates lagging among NC kids, data show

annabelle vax (2).jpg
Courtesy Javier Jimenez
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Annabelle Jimenez, a 5-year-old Hickory resident, shows off her Band-Aid after getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hickory resident Javier Jimenez jumped at the chance to get COVID-19 vaccines for his two oldest sons, ages 7 and 8, as soon as they were available.

“It’s very important that my kids are safe from anything that we can prevent,” Jimenez said.

In 2020, before a vaccine for the coronavirus was widely available, Jimenez spent several days in bed with COVID-19. He couldn’t sleep because it hurt to breathe. He said he thought he was going to die. Watching his experience, he thinks, made getting the COVID-19 vaccine an easier sell to his kids.

“They all saw, when I was sick, how bad I felt and how they really couldn’t come close to me,” Jimenez said. “I tried to explain to them that getting the shot is a good way to fight this sickness that’s all over the world, not just here.”

Many North Carolina parents aren’t as eager as Jimenez to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19, even as the new school year approaches.

State data as of Tuesday showed 27% of kids ages 5 to 11 had received at least one dose. That number was even smaller for children under 5 — just 5%. For kids ages 12 to 17, roughly half had received at least one dose.

“What we saw was an initial rush of parents who were very anxious to get their children vaccinated,” said Dr. David Priest, an infectious disease physician at Novant Health.

Parents in this initial wave may have been especially impatient for the shot because their child is immunocompromised, Priest said, or the household includes an elderly or immunocompromised person.

The next wave, which is where Priest said North Carolina is now, is made up of more hesitant caregivers.

“Maybe your kid has already had COVID. Maybe you want to see how it plays out a little bit more. Maybe you don’t have all of those risk factors and so you want to wait a bit,” Priest said.

Children are also less likely to get seriously ill with COVID-19, which may be holding some parents back, according to Dr. Susan Kansagra, director of the North Carolina Division of Public Health.

“While children do have a lower risk, they’re still at risk of getting COVID and some complications, for example, long COVID,” Kansagra said. “And while it is rare to have severe disease in children, we have seen children have severe disease and, unfortunately, even die across the country.”

Kansagra said the state’s Department of Health and Human Services is working to vaccinate more children by teaming up with community organizations to do educational outreach. DHHS also hosts town halls where parents and caregivers can ask questions about the vaccine. Kansagra hopes the state’s child vaccination rate will tick up as more parents talk with their kids’ pediatricians about their concerns.

In South Carolina, the percentage of vaccinated kids under 12 is even lower than North Carolina’s. State data as of Tuesday showed 22% of kids ages 5 to 11 had at least one dose — along with just 2% of kids under 5.

South Carolina parent Beth Halasz lives about 90 miles from Charlotte. She hasn’t vaccinated her two kids, ages 7 and 2. She doesn’t believe her children are at risk of getting significantly ill and is skeptical of studies touting the vaccines’ safety, in part because she said the vaccines were developed fast.

“To introduce something that is brand-new that we don’t know long-term effects on — I was immediately, right out of the gate, not interested,” Halasz said.

Like most U.S. states, neither North Carolina nor South Carolina requires COVID-19 vaccinations for kids to attend school. South Carolina has, in fact, prohibited school districts from requiring the shots.

Meanwhile, another member of Javier Jimenez’s family recently received the COVID-19 vaccine — his 5-year-old daughter Annabelle, who’s about to start kindergarten.

“She cried but she’s a champ,” Jimenez said. He bought her a lollipop for being brave.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.