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Parents may have become skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines after seeing breakthrough omicron infections over the winter, causing children’s vaccination rates to stall or even pull back, according to data from researchers at Northeastern and partnering universities.
The teen vaccination rate ticked upward to 57% in January 2022 from 55% in November 2021, nine months after federal authorities approved vaccines for children 12-18 years old. In that same span, the rate for kids 5-11 years old rose to 36% from 27%, a larger rise that was not surprising given that vaccines became available for the age group only in November 2021.
The gap between the age groups is closing, researchers say. Even still, they say, a “substantial” number of people are foregoing inoculations.
‘We’re seeing a plateauing because all the enthusiasts have gotten vaccinated,’ says David Lazer, distinguished professor of political science and computer science. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University
Researchers counted a child as vaccinated after just one shot. The findings were gleaned from an online survey of more than 2,000 parents who were asked about their children’s vaccination status.
Inoculations for youngsters initially surged because of high interest before stabilizing over time, similar to what happened for adults.
“We’re seeing a plateauing because all the enthusiasts have gotten vaccinated, and then you’re left with wary parents who are either hesitant or adamantly against vaccines,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer science, and one of the study’s lead authors.
“The only question will be if schools start requiring it, then you could certainly imagine it picking up again,” he adds.
In the case of 5- to 11-year-olds, however, inoculations did not just slow down over the winter; they retreated, the study finds. In November, 65% of parents with kids under 12 said they were likely to vaccinate their offspring; by January 2022 that number had fallen to 59%.
Omicron breakthrough cases may have had parents questioning the effectiveness of vaccines, says Krissy Lunz Trujillo, a postdoctoral researcher in Northeastern’s Network Science Institute.
“That skepticism is further creating vaccine hesitancy, especially among parents of younger kids, which is an age group that’s seen as less likely to have really adverse effects from COVID-19,” she says. “So there’s a lot less pressure for parents to get their kids vaccinated.”
Another explanation: The rush of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined with a surge in COVID-19 cases tested already-exhausted parents. Those who tried in vain to book vaccine appointments with their pharmacies may have simply thrown up their hands and decided to stay indoors.
“Parents may have been hesitant to go out and get their kids vaccinated,” says Trujillo.
While unvaccinated children can unknowingly pass the virus that causes COVID-19 on to their schoolmates in the classroom, the lunchroom, or at recess, federal public health data shows that more than 95% of U.S. deaths were of people 45 years old and up.
That doesn’t mean the young are out of the woods.
“COVID-19 can make children very sick and cause children to be hospitalized,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In some situations, the complications from infection can lead to death.” COVID-19 ranks as one of the top 10 causes of death for children ages 5 through 11 years, the agency adds.
Northeastern researchers say understanding youth vaccination trends may foreshadow what will happen now that Pfizer-BioNTech has sought vaccine approval for children under 5. Parents of children in that age group are the least likely to pursue inoculations. In September, 62% of these parents said it was likely they would vaccinate their kids. That number dropped to 54% in January.
Parents most likely to oppose shots for their kids included Republicans, the survey shows. The likelihood of them pursuing vaccinations dropped eight percentage points since September to 54% in January. Democrats, meanwhile, were 30 percentage points more inclined than their GOP counterparts.
Asian and Hispanic parents also were more likely to inoculate their children compared to white and Black parents.
Respondents with a college degree were much more likely to vaccinate their teens, increasing from 70% in September to 82% in January. Conversely, non-college-educated parents have plateaued at around 60%.
“Generally speaking, education has been very positively correlated with vaccine enthusiasm,” Lazer says.
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