I’m a mother and a pediatrician. My kids are getting COVID vaccines right away

Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti
The Charlotte Observer (TNS)

Dear fellow parents: Please get your kids vaccinated. I’m doing so this week.

As a pediatrician at Duke Health, I’ve seen many children and families suffer from COVID-19 over the last 20 months. The parents of my patients tell me about the fevers, body aches, headaches, and loss of smell that have lasted for months. With approval this week of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11, we can ease a great deal of that heartache.

COVID-19 has not only harmed adults. In North Carolina, about 250,000 of the state’s COVID-19 cases — roughly 1 in every 6 — has been a child. And with the emergence of the more contagious Delta variant over the last several months, more and more children have become infected.

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COVID-19 is unpredictable. Some children have it and never know; symptoms can be nonexistent, mild, serious or even deadly. But even a mild or asymptomatic infection can force a child into quarantine, a disruption to the predictable, consistent routine that helps children thrive.

With moderate illness, they may need to be hospitalized, which can be very traumatic. Almost 10% of children who had COVID-19 may experience prolonged symptoms, such as trouble concentrating, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain, and insomnia.

A recent report showed that 1 out of every 3 children admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 ends up in the intensive care unit and may need life support. Sadly, over 700 children have now died of COVID-19 in the United States, more than usually die of influenza in an average year.

In this Sept. 14, 2021, file photo, a syringe is prepared with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at the Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pa.

And COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on children of color. Black and Hispanic children represent more than half of the child hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Meanwhile, recent research found that 140,000 American children have lost a parent to COVID-19, many of them racial and ethnic minorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on the mental health of children as well. I’ve seen it in my own patients, like the bubbly little girl who I’ve been taking care of for four years. This child has traditionally been so upbeat that I had a sticky note to remind myself: “She’s always happy!” But when I last saw her a few months ago, she was gripped by anxiety and thoughts of suicide; the pandemic had turned her world upside down. She never had COVID-19 herself, but the pandemic had cut her off from her own life support: school, friends, activities.

She was not the only one. In my 15 years as a pediatrician, I have never seen so many young girls cutting their wrists as a suicidal gesture, as I have this year.

But there is hope now. COVID-19 finally joins the list of other vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles, tetanus and polio. There don’t have to be another 700 childhood deaths next year. With the protection of the vaccine on board, our children can now be part of the fight, part of the victory.

Over the last year my kids have watched me on countless virtual town halls sharing stories about the hardships my patients and their families face. They have heard their father, a pulmonologist and intensive care doctor, come home day after day talking about the different ways he and his team try to save the lives of people suffering from COVID-19.

My children are 7 and 9 years old, and I see the vaccine as a chance to give them agency — to empower them in this fight against COVID-19. And the good news is that we have a safe and effective way to do it. I am getting them vaccinated Thursday, as soon as the vaccine is available. Please join me.

— Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti is a pediatrician at Duke Health. This piece was written for The Charlotte Observer.