As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more and more information has been shared about how to keep you and your family safe. Information is coming at us from all directions and sometimes it can be tough to know what to believe.
Vermont Mom recently had the opportunity to check in with Vermont families about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11.
We polled our social media followers and found that many of you have similar questions. We poised your questions to Dr. Leah Costello from Timber Lane Pediatrics and are excited to share her answers about the COVID vaccine for children ages 5-11. Dr. Costello received her undergraduate degree at Bates College in Maine. She attended the University of Vermont College of Medicine and did her pediatrics residency at the University of Utah. She joined Timber Lane Pediatrics in the fall of 2016.
Vermont Mom would like to thank Dr. Costello for spending time to answer our questions and for her sincerity, compassion, and expertise. Vermont is lucky to have such a superb pediatrician in our state. We would also like to thank the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for listening to Vermont families’ concerns and providing factual, science-based information for our community.
Please enjoy our Q&A recap and, below, the video of our full interview with Dr. Costello.
Vermont Mom: If I’m vaccinated, am I less likely to get long COVID? How common is long COVID in children?
Dr. Costello: I think that’s an excellent question. We get a lot of questions about long COVID in kids. And luckily, our experience has been that we have not seen a lot of long COVID in children.
The definition of long COVID is having symptoms for up to six months. People may experience brain fog or fatigue, shortness of breath, and/or irregular heartbeats. And unfortunately, as in most health care things, we actually just don’t have as much data on kids.
Studies on long COVID are really based on adult data and adult reports. For pediatrics, the numbers vary, but we’re seeing reports of symptoms lasting more than three months in about 10 to 25% of kids.
In our personal experience here in Vermont, more teenagers have experienced longer symptoms than younger kids. Younger kids seem to be recovering from COVID quickly.
The best way to reduce our risk of getting COVID- and therefore getting long COVID- is to get vaccinated and follow the other public health safety measures that are recommended by the Vermont Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at that time, but vaccination really is the best way to protect against getting COVID and therefore against getting long COVID.
Vermont Mom: How well are COVID vaccines working against different COVID variants?
Dr. Costello: Again, also a question that we’re hearing quite frequently in our offices as we counsel families on getting the COVID vaccine. It is unfortunate that our rates of prevention against getting the disease have been lower than they were initially when the COVID vaccine first came out.
To provide context, each year, our flu vaccine is made to address whichever variants of influenza are present in our community. Today, our COVID vaccine does not do that. It does offer protection. Unfortunately, the protection is not as high as it was when it initially came out in late 2020, early 2021. But it does offer protection and at this point, right now, it is the best protection that we have against COVID and reducing the risk of long COVID, as we just spoke about.
Most importantly the data that we are seeing, and this holds true in Vermont for Vermont children and families, is that the COVID vaccine significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization, severe disease, and death. We have had very low rates of hospitalization from COVID in vaccinated children.
When we compare the side effects of the vaccine to the effects of the illness, we see that the COVID vaccine really remains quite safe.
The potential risks of the vaccine are low, but the potential risks from getting COVID in an unvaccinated child are higher. Anything we can do to protect a kid that is safe, we’re going to recommend and encourage.
The thing about viruses and bacteria that we vaccinate against is that these viruses and bacteria don’t care who is a healthy kid, or who’s a kid at high risk. We have no way of predicting who gets complications from COVID, who gets hospitalized, or who might be intubated in the PICU (pediatric intensive care unit.) Having the complication several weeks after COVID called MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children) was in the news a lot at the beginning of the pandemic- and we have no predictors about which children will get this. Even after two years of this illness, we still don’t have predictors of who could get serious disease from COVID infection.
When we look at how many millions of children have been vaccinated against COVID we see that we have not had any safety signals saying that there is a concern about the safety of the COVID vaccine. We have seen reports and reports and reports of kids getting quite ill with COVID.
As a pediatrician, trying to promote the health of my patients, my community, and my own family, I say that the benefits of the COVID vaccine to reduce the risk of a rare complication far outweigh the risks of the vaccine.
We vaccinate because we have trust in the science and the safety of our vaccines.
I do have a line I tell all of my patients, and I tell the community as I talk about health and safety:
I would never ever recommend anything for your child that I wouldn’t do for my own children.
Two of my kids have already received the vaccine. In fact, they received it the night it came out in Vermont, and my three-year-old will also receive the vaccine as soon as it is approved. I trust in the science, I trust in the safety, I trust in the process around vaccines, and I would never recommend anything for you that I wouldn’t do for myself.
Vermont Mom: Do you have any advice for parents who have concerns about the potential long-term side effects of COVID vaccines in children?
Dr. Costello: The question about side effects from vaccines is one that we get all the time and not just for the COVID vaccine, but for other vaccines too. In particular, we are asked,
how do we know that this vaccine might not cause a problem in the future?
The reason that we feel so confident answering no is there is just no plausible reason for the COVID vaccine or any vaccine to cause long-term consequences or late-onset consequences.
What we know about vaccinations, including the way they are produced and the process by which the body absorbs them, is that we really only see side effects from a vaccine within the first two to eight weeks after the vaccine is given. That’s because the vaccine is not permanent within your body. The liquid that goes into your body when you get the vaccine degrades and breaks down and it can’t continue to interact with your cells when it is gone.
Specifically for the COVID vaccine and other mRNA vaccines, I don’t know if you remember in the beginning, they were so unstable, that they needed to be stored in special very cold refrigerators. These vaccines denature within a few days in your body. Every single day when I breathe in and something that’s new or foreign enters my body as a dust particle, my immune system builds up an antibody response to that new particle. That is the same as what’s happening with your body’s response to the vaccine. That process happens every single day whether we get vaccinated or not. Our body is doing this.
Because the vaccine breaks down so quickly in our body, it’s just not scientifically plausible for vaccines to have late-onset or long-term side effects.
I take great comfort in the fact that we’ve given millions and millions of vaccines to kids ages five and up, and have had no reports of unexpected or unintended new side effects. What we are seeing is fevers, pain or redness at the site of the vaccine, and some headaches. All of these are quite mild, managed with Tylenol or ibuprofen or ice for just discomfort.
The other question that often comes up with vaccines is about fertility. Again, it just
is not plausible. The vaccine does not go to your gonads, which are your ovaries and testis. There’s just no scientific mechanism by which vaccines could affect fertility for our young kids or adults who are getting the vaccine.
Vermont Mom: Can kids get another vaccine like the flu vaccine, at the same time as they get their COVID shot?
Dr. Costello: Yes, kids can get all of their routine immunizations, including their flu vaccines, at the same time as getting their COVID vaccine.
When the COVID vaccine was initially released for children ages 12 and up last spring of 2021, the recommendation was to wait two weeks until you receive any other vaccines. That was actually quickly changed because there was no reason to delay any other vaccines. You should get your vaccines as soon as you are eligible to promote the health of your community, yourself, your school.
Vermont Mom: If my kid has already had COVID, why do they need to be vaccinated because doesn’t having COVID give a natural immunity that works just as well as a vaccine?
Dr. Costello: Unfortunately, COVID infection doesn’t work quite as well as the vaccine. We all respond differently to the COVID infection. And mount a varied response to the infection, because a varied amount of virus enters our body. A vaccine, which is a measured amount of not a virus, but rather a protein, is put into our body for a more consistent response. We are seeing research showing that both natural immunity (from infection) and vaccine-induced immunity give kids more protection against COVID. We would never ever recommend anybody go out and get infected with COVID to improve their immunity. We also know that vaccine-related immunity lasts longer.
We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t know what’s around the corner. If you remember in December, Omicron, popped up pretty quickly and really changed things here in Vermont schools and childcare centers. Could a new variant be circulating and pop up at any point? Yes, that is a potential and something that we’ve learned from. Being up to date on vaccines and boosters will allow some protection for that unknown around the corner. Keeping in mind the speed at which Omicron came through our community we need to be aware that it takes several weeks to be fully vaccinated. If your child has not been vaccinated yet, you get one vaccine, then you get another one three weeks later, and then wait another two weeks and you’re considered fully vaccinated. So that’s a five-week period to be fully vaccinated. Omicron came upon us much faster than that. Having your child vaccinated ahead of time, ahead of those unknowns that are coming, is the best way to provide protection to them.
Vermont Mom: Why would a child need a COVID vaccine when survival rates are high?
Dr. Costello: Survival rates are high, you are right. As a pediatrician, it has been really helpful during this pandemic to be able to tell families that.
We do know that the COVID vaccine can reduce the risk of getting COVID, albeit not as well as we initially hoped. But it can reduce the risk of getting COVID and it can significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death. Across the United States, thousands of kids were hospitalized in a week in January. Yes, many, many of them went home without complications, but they were still hospitalized. And that’s risky and that’s not something you want your child to go through.
Anything that pediatricians can do that is safe and effective at helping reduce risks we want to offer to our families. We want to encourage our families and our communities to consider those options. And that option right now is the COVID vaccine.
We don’t know who could get sick and we don’t know who could get hospitalized or have prolonged symptoms. Taking a vaccine that has a relatively low risk of side effects and that has been given to millions and millions of children without complications is something that we want to be continuing to offer to kids and their families. Kids are not supposed to die. That is absolutely not something that should be happening. If we can do anything to prevent even the smallest number of kids’ deaths, and if it is safe and effective, we should do it.
Because kids are not supposed to die and kids have died from this illness. Kids who have been completely healthy, no risk factors, didn’t see it coming. If you have anything in your power to prevent that, even if it’s not your child, if it’s just in your community- vaccines are the way that we keep not only our own family but also our community healthy. We all live in this community. We are all responsible for each other. And I would never recommend anything I don’t do for my own children, and I highly recommend this vaccine.
One thing I wanted to just touch back on is the side effects of vaccines.
Pediatricians are at the forefront of vaccine administration. We give vaccines all day long. Not just COVID vaccines, but all vaccines, all day long, every day. I’ve been doing that since I left residency in 2010. And before that, during residency as well. Every day that I work, I give vaccines, and I think they’re really safe. And they’re really effective. They’re one of the best public health measures that we have in our bucket of tools. Next to clean drinking water, vaccines have saved the largest number of lives.
Pediatricians are advocates for health. We are here to promote the health of our kids in our
community. If pediatricians were seeing unusual, unwanted unwarranted side effects from a vaccine, we would be the first to report that.
Please enjoy our full interview about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids with Dr. Leah Costello.
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