STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines are now available to kids 12 and over, and could be available to kids under 11 before the end of this year, one of Staten Island’s top pediatrics doctors is encouraging families to get their kids vaccinated — as the benefit of the vaccine against serious illness far outweighs the low risk of side effects.
“My encouragement is for everybody to get the vaccine, that the number of side effects is extremely low and the temporary side effects, it’s much better than dealing with the illness — where the child is going to be in a pediatric ICU and the parents are going to be praying for their child’s life,” said Dr. Brian McMahon, pediatric chair at Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC).
While many children are contracting the coronavirus and experiencing mild symptoms, the borough doctor is warning that there have been some “very serious cases of COVID in children.”
“Many children get the COVID illness and it’s mild, however, there have been some very serious cases of COVID in children,” said McMahon. “I would make a distinction between the age 12 and older, and 12 and under. We have had serious cases where we were just thankful that the patient survived — patients that we had to treat in our pediatric ICU.”
He explained that the hospital has treated several patients in the pediatric unit, including an 18-year-old and a 17-year-old who both had pneumonia after contracting COVID-19.
“There was a 19-year-old who, we were doing everything we could and we just said, almost to ourselves, ‘It’s in God’s hands.’ And we didn’t think she was going to make it, but she did,” McMahon recalled.
While children are less likely to be severely ill — it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. McMahon pointed to the 13-year-old in Mississippi, with no risk factors, who died a few weeks ago after contracting COVID-19.
“A big point that I would like to make is there is no age in which we can say you are invulnerable,” he said. “Very often, the younger you are, the better you’re going to do — but nobody can say, ‘Oh you’re a baby, therefore, you’ll get COVID therefore we have nothing to worry about.’ It’s not true.”
MUST BE CAREFUL AT ALL AGES
He continued: “We have to be careful at all ages, and that’s the reason why we want vaccinations to be given — and it’s also the reasoning why we give many, if not most, of the other vaccines.”
A big task is to engage parents who may not think getting their kid vaccinated is necessary, or who have strong convictions against the shot, he said.
“I’ve seen too many times people who are on their deathbed saying, ‘I wish I had gotten the vaccine,’ and we’ve seen it in healthy people, who are pictures of health.”
McMahon said about 1.5 million patients between the ages of 12 and 17 have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States.
“So it does occur, and teenagers — unfortunately, 13,000 were hospitalized,” said McMahon. “That comes to a little number for me that sounds like 88.7 per thousand. That’s much higher than the risk of side effects.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, spoke to The New York Times during the media outlet’s special program, “What We Know About Kids and Covid-19,″ about the concerns parents may have about getting their kids vaccinated.
“Is the risk of COVID to the children worth the risk of the vaccine?” Fauci asked. “The risk of a vaccine is exceedingly low. True, in general, children do not have as likely a chance of getting a severe outcome as adults and those with underlying conditions, but all you need to do right now is go throughout the country, particularly in the southern states — Florida, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana — places like that, and go to the pediatric hospitals and you will see the beds are filled with children who have COVID-19 serious enough to have them require hospitalization.”
He explained that while, statistically, the illness isn’t as bad in children as in adults, you still “do not want your child to get infected — not only because it could be a serious disease, but because there may be long-lasting effects of COVID-19. Things that we refer to as long COVID.”
Long COVID means that after you clear the virus and are apparently free of disease, there are lingering symptoms of fatigue, muscle aches, sleep disturbances, among others.
‘NOT A GOOD THING’
“So it’s not a good thing to get infected with this virus, and that’s the reason why we feel strongly that ultimately we should get everyone vaccinated against it,” Fauci added.
McMahon explained he has been giving the COVID vaccine in his office, and his pediatric patients haven’t experienced severe side effects. Most common side effects of the vaccine are pain at the injection site, chills, muscle or joint pain — usually felt after the second dose.
“This is, for me, minor. You can take Tylenol and you might feel it day two, and by day three you’re fine,” he said.
He pointed to one study that found 6% of vaccinated adolescents experienced an adverse event of a swollen lymph node. McMahon explained this isn’t something severe to worry about, as some people can get swollen lymph nodes after a sore throat, whether it be strep throat or mononucleosis.
“… by vaccinating the children, you’re helping to protect everybody else in the family, whether it be the parents or the grandparents. So I’m in favor of the vaccine,” he said.
But some parents may still not be ready to vaccinate their children — even for parents who are vaccinated themselves. But McMahon said there are “no serious side effects” when vaccinating children.
“They think the vaccine is too new, but it’s been given to hundreds of millions of people,” McMahon noted. “It’s got a tremendous safety margin, and it’s 90% effective.”
He added that parents may be afraid that the mRNA of the vaccine is somehow going to get incorporated into the DNA of their children. But he said the MRNA lasts a finite time in which it instructs the cells to produce antibodies against COVID-19, and then it’s gone.
“It doesn’t hang around, it doesn’t get incorporated into the DNA of their children,” he said. “And that’s why you can give it to pregnant women and the mother will have antibodies, as well as it will protect her newborn at birth.”
Currently, only children 12 and older are eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine under an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Pfizer submitted research to the FDA on Wednesday on the effectiveness of its vaccine on children ages 5 to 11 years old, but the shots may not be available until November.
“First of all, the companies [Pfizer and Moderna] have to submit the data to the FDA,” Fauci told The Times. “Then it becomes a regulatory decision as to whether or not they deemed that the risk-benefit is definitely worth the benefit over the risk. Hopefully, that will be the case, because we all want to see children who are in that younger age group get vaccinated.”