For months, medical groups have sounded the alarm about the possibility of widespread COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among parents whenever one becomes available for children.
And new data suggests that concern isn’t unfounded.
A poll of 1,000 parents with children in K-12 public schools conducted by the National Parents Union (a nationwide network of groups and activists that represents parents of color) found that 40% would not commit to giving their child the COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.
Within that group, 18% said they were unsure about what they would do when the time comes, and 22% said they would refuse altogether.
An additional 25% of parents surveyed said that they would get their children vaccinated but not right away. Many indicated they were simply unlikely to trust a vaccine until it has been in circulation for several months.
“It’s very hard at this point for parents to make a decision as to whether or not they would get their kids vaccinated,” Keri Rodrigues, co-founder and president of the National Parents Union, told HuffPost.
“It’s going to take a lot of science and the right ambassadors for parents to have any faith that this is something we trust our children’s lives to,” she added. Rodrigues noted that parents of color and low-income parents have a particular and “well-earned” mistrust of political, educational and medical systems, which could limit parental buy-in for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The new survey is not the first to raise the question of how likely parents are to get their children vaccinated when the time comes.
And, on a broader level, polls have suggested there is increased willingness among Americans in general to get the COVID-19 vaccine. But surveys are not reliable for showing how many people (or parents) will ultimately do so, and they should be looked at more as a “rough guide.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been arguing for months that children must be included in COVID-19 vaccine trials, and Pfizer has now enrolled children ages 12 and up in its clinical trials. Moderna is set to do the same, as are other vaccine manufacturers.
Including children is critically important because parents need to gain trust in a vaccine whenever one becomes available, the AAP has stressed.
Of course, refusal or reluctance to vaccinate children is an issue that predates the coronavirus pandemic.
“We do know that vaccine hesitancy is a common problem, and we do know that it is getting a little bit worse,” Dr. Jesse Hackell, chair of the AAP’s Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine, told HuffPost. “We know that about a quarter of parents are ‘hesitant’ and about 3% are totally opposed to vaccines.”
Hackell noted, however, that parents who fall in that “hesitant” category generally come around to the idea of vaccinating children, and research clearly shows that limiting vaccine exemptions for day care and school enrollment increases vaccine use. He said that if trials in children demonstrate the same levels of safety and efficacy as they have in adults, that could significantly bolster public confidence.
And for now, of course, all of these conversations are hypothetical.
There is no clear timeline for when a COVID-19 vaccine might be available to children, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has predicted that children 12 and older may start being vaccinated by early summer.
Hackell echoed that, telling HuffPost it is reasonable to expect vaccination of children could begin by June, “assuming everything falls into place,” and that emergent COVID-19 variants won’t significantly alter vaccines’ efficacy.
In the meantime, Rodrigues said, there is much that needs to be done to bolster parental confidence, much of which she believes comes down to policies around communication. Parents may be skeptical of politicians and school districts, she said, but they will trust the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding, “They trust their public health officials on the local level.”
And groups like the AAP have established techniques that can help reassure vaccine-hesitant parents, like simply listening to parents and pointing them toward reputable sources of information. But experts like Hackell say it is likely to be an ongoing issue.
“There are a lot of people out there who aren’t willing to get vaccinated,” he said. “I think we’re going to see that carry over to their kids.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.