COVID-19 Vaccine: What Parents Need to Know

It’s been a tough year for families due to COVID-19. We’ve juggled homeschool and virtual work, seen beloved routines collapse and childhood rites of passage canceled. We’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle with the virus and even lose their lives, jobs and shutter businesses. We’ve taught our kids to embrace masks, while fretting over whether to send them to school or allow friends and family to visit.

New vaccines promise a return to normalcy, but many questions remain, especially for parents since the vaccines have not been tested yet on children.

Dr. Emily Landon, executive medical director of infection prevention and control for UChicago Medicine, urges us all to do our research so that when it’s our turn to get the vaccine, we’re prepared.

“There’s a lot of good information out there about how it  works and why it’s safe and that’s why we’re confident about it,” Landon says. She shares some answers:

What are the differences between vaccines?

Three vaccines are currently authorized and recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses, with an interval of 21 days between. The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine also requires two shots, 28 days apart. The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine requires one shot.

Other vaccines, by AstraZeneca, Janssen and Novavax, are in the works.

Are kids eligible for the COVID vaccine?

No. At least, not yet. Children’s immune systems are very different from adults’, so the research that’s been done on the COVID-19 vaccine for ages 16 and up needs to be repeated in younger children. Both Pfizer and Moderna have reportedly begun clinical trials on children as young as 12. If they are successful, the data will need to go through FDA review, followed by production and distribution. Experts agree the soonest children will start receiving the vaccine is later this summer.

“As is the case with all vaccines, if there are any problems, we don’t want kids in the first trials,” Landon says.

Can teenagers 16 and up get the vaccine?

Yes and no. The vaccines are approved for ages 16 and up, but under current emergency use authorizations, they will only be given to teenagers with high-risk conditions, such as severely compromised immune systems. Not a lot of 16-year-olds fit this bill. For now, with limited supplies, vaccines are reserved for those who need it most – anyone 65 and older, and frontline essential workers, including health care professionals, teachers, childcare workers and more.

Are children at risk of COVID?

Children are vectors. That means they can catch COVID-19 and pass it along without experiencing severe symptoms themselves. According to the CDC, evidence suggests half of children who acquire COVID-19 are asymptomatic, and hospitalization rates for children are low. Still, they can carry high viral loads and not even know it, running the risk of infecting those around them.

“That’s what makes summer vacation with grandma so difficult,” Landon says.

Do the vaccines contain live COVID-19 virus?

No. They are Messenger RNA vaccines, which teach our bodies how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. In the case of COVID-19, vaccines isolate a “spike protein” found on the surface of the virus.

According to the CDC, when the vaccine is injected into the muscle of the upper arm, our cells use mRNA instructions to make the protein, then break down and destroy the instructions. Our immune system recognizes the foreign protein and begins building an immune response by making antibodies. After that, when and if our cells encounter COVID-19’s spike protein, they know what to do.

The vaccine development process was so rushed. Are mRNA vaccines too new to be safe?

Actually, mRNA vaccines have been studied since the late 1980s, so the technology used to create the COVID-19 vaccines is not new. mRNA vaccines have been used before in other trials, they just haven’t worked.

“The good news is they work really well with COVID,” Landon says.

mRNA vaccines don’t take as long to develop and produce as vaccines containing live virus, which require growing pathogens in huge cell farms, then purifying, modifying and extracting material. Not so with mRNA vaccines, which is how they were rolled out in less than one year.

Are there side effects?

You may feel pain and swelling in the arm where you get the shot. As your body builds protection, you may experience flu-like symptoms that are reportedly worse after the second dose. Fever, chills, fatigue and headache might even affect your ability to do daily activities but should subside in a few days. Be sure to schedule your second shot even if you experience side effects, unless your doctor advises against it.

More serious side effects have been reported by people with severe allergies in rare cases. Landon suggests if you suffer from severe allergies, remain under medical care for 30 minutes after receiving the shot. Otherwise, there aren’t a lot of side effects, she says.

“They don’t act to change your genes and they’re really, really safe,” Landon says.

Since my kids have to wait for the vaccine, what should we do in the meantime?

Continue to use the precautions we’ve all learned so well — wash hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, wear masks in public spaces, practice social distancing. Stay home if you are unwell and make sure you are comfortable with the safety protocols your school has in place.

Should I keep my child out of school until they get the vaccine?

No. Kids do not need to be vaccinated in order to safely go back to school, Landon says.

“It’s not about creating a COVID-free school, but a COVID-transmission-free school,” Landon says. “Get them out, but keep them from spreading COVID. That’s what really matters.”

My child can’t get vaccinated yet, but should I?

Yes. As teachers, family members and adults surrounding your children are vaccinated, transmission rates will decrease.

“As soon as you’re eligible, get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Landon says.

The exception is if you’ve recently had COVID, wait 90 days, Landon says, because technically you already have immunity.

“Let someone else have that dose,” she says.

I can’t wait to get the vaccine. How do I get in line?

There is a limited supply of vaccines in the U.S., but supply will increase in the weeks and months to come. The goal, according to the CDC, is for everyone to have easy access to a vaccine as soon as possible, at doctors’ offices, drug stores, hospitals and health centers.

Visit the Illinois Department of Public Health to find and register at a location near you. 

Will most Chicagoland parents give the vaccine to their kids?

A newly released survey by Voices of Child Health of Chicago, a research program at Lurie Children’s Hospital, shows not all parents are sure about giving the vaccine to their kids. The survey was conducted last summer before vaccines had been developed, but released recently.

7 in 10 parents surveyed say they are likely to get the vaccine for their kids. However, parents in Chicago communities with the highest burden of COVID are less likely to get the vaccine for their kids and themselves and non-Latinx Black parents are the least likely to get the vaccine for their kids, the survey found.

Here are what local parents have to share about giving their kids the vaccine:

  • “We will be vaccinating if studies show no initial side effects. We know the damage that can be done after COVID is gone.” — Kandi Crowe
  • “One of my 3-year-old twins got COVID last April. I’m a teacher and am getting my first vaccine next week. If, when they can get it, research still says it’s safe, then it is definitely yes for us!” — Kristie Seraj
  • “Until we have strong evidence otherwise, we will plan on getting them vaccinated. Our nurses, doctors, and medical staff have been putting themselves at risk for almost a year to save lives. Our family can do our small part to help save lives by getting the vaccine.” — Tiana Kubik

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This article originally published on Feb. 26, 2021. It has been updated with the most recent information. It was also featured in Chicago Parent’s March/April 2021 magazine

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