Michigan Association of Health Plans

Pediatricians eager to get kids ages 5-11 vaccinated

This article originally appeared in the Royal Oak Tribune. Read more here

As children’s vaccines roll out, some pediatricians are overwhelmed and understaffed, but all are eager to help.

Dr. Silvia Operti from Kidz1st Pediatrics in Rochester Hills is thrilled to have the vaccine available now for children as young as 5.

“As a pediatrician I feel my main job is to help our families raise happy and healthy children, I always say. There is nothing that the medical field can do that will come even close to what the vaccine will do for our kids and families,’’ Operti said. “It’s going to make a world of difference — it’s going to make a difference between a child being not sick or a little sick or ending up in the hospital with very acute short-term consequences and with long-term consequences that we still don’t know what those are.’’

She’s had patients sick enough to end up in the hospital so is happy to be holding a clinic on Saturday, Nov. 13, for children with 300 doses available. To sign up go to Kidz1st.com.

“(COVID) is a different animal altogether. There’s nothing in the examination and the physical and the history that’s going to tell us if this child is going to be one who will do well or one that’s going to get very sick. All of our education and knowledge for this is out the window,’’ Operti said.

The pediatrician said that in 1994 she finished her training at Children’s Hospital. Since then much has changed with new medical treatments, new diagnoses and new tests.

“But what continued to be constant was that when we walked in the room and examined a child and asked the parent what the history was, we were able to determine the prognosis and tell the parents how to help their child and what to expect,’’ Operti said. “Then a year and a half ago COVID came and made that constant go away. COVID is something that presents like everything and like nothing.’’

Before the emergency use authorization for children, Operti worked hard to convince parents to get vaccinated. She made the vaccine mandatory for her staff of 32 in July and six left because they refused the vaccine.

Now she will urge parents to get their children vaccinated. While many parents could not wait to get their child the shot, many others are hesitant.

It’s the same all over the country.

The moment April Lowe learned that a coronavirus vaccine had been recommended for children ages 5 to 11, she called her kids’ pediatrician.

Before federal health authorities gave the green light, Lowe, 36, of Jackson Springs, N.C., had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the doctor to vaccinate her oldest son, explaining that he was almost 12 and that his history with asthma and other respiratory issues put him at higher risk for severe disease. She also attempted to get her children into a clinical trial. So when she got the doctor’s office on the phone last week, she booked the earliest appointment and got her 7- and 11-year-old sons vaccinated.

And when a vaccine becomes available for her 2-year-old, she said she will not hesitate.

“I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that as soon as they were approved, we were getting them,” she said of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine.

As parents like Lowe have sought to immunize their 5-to-11-year-old children, pediatricians say demands for their time have surged to strain the capacities of their practices, many of which are experiencing shortages of nurses and support staff in line with national labor trends. Pediatricians nationwide describe a crush of appointment requests that has both overwhelmed and energized them as they seek to keep children from contracting or spreading the virus that causes covid-19.

The deluge of phone calls began in the summer, when plummeting coronavirus infections spurred daycares and schools to reopen in person, sometimes without mask requirements. Common respiratory viruses surged, and a flood of patients returned for regular checkups and vaccinations that they had delayed at the pandemic’s apex. Pediatricians also continued to monitor the mental health of their patients, many of whom have experienced heightened depression, anxiety or behavioral issues since the pandemic began, doctors said.

Then the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus fueled a new wave of cases, which increased the need for testing. Pediatricians quickly found themselves “underwater,” said Michael Martin, president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. In a “call for help” shared on Facebook in September, Martin wrote that pediatricians’ offices could not keep up with demand for visits because of staff shortages, health-care workers’ burnout and a significant increase in coronavirus testing required by day cares and schools.

Now, those pediatricians are also racing to vaccinate their patients against the disease that has claimed the lives of more than 600 children in the United States since the start of 2020. Although schools and pharmacies are helping with distribution, pediatricians face most of the responsibility for vaccinating kids.

“We’re excited for children to get the vaccine,” said Christoph Diasio, a pediatrician in Southern Pines, N.C. “It’s hard work, but doing hard work is what we do in primary care.”

More than 900,000 children ages 5 to 11 will have gotten their first vaccine dose by the end of Wednesday, and an additional 700,000 appointments have been scheduled at pharmacies, White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said Wednesday.

Pediatricians from California to Virginia say they have a long list of names of parents who want to get their younger children immunized. Some doctors have office staffers dedicated to making the appointments. And most are holding vaccine clinics, often after business hours, to get shots in small arms.

Several pediatricians said they expected demand to align with a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from last month that found that about 27% of parents were eager to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible. Doctors said they anticipate that the initial surge will eventually give way to a lower vaccination rate, as a third of parents say they plan to take a wait-and-see approach.

“We all went into this field to take care of kids,” said Kate Williamson, a pediatrician in Orange County, Calif. “And we know that this is just a time for us to step up and work a little more to save lives.”

In Virginia, Martin said 91% of 262 pediatricians he surveyed were short on staff in September. Nearly three-quarters said they had turned away or redirected sick patients in the past month, and 38% said they could not complete the amount of coronavirus testing requested by families and schools.

Some primary-care facilities would not necessarily be short-staffed if they were facing a normal level of demand, Boogaard said, but they are struggling to hire extra help to meet the current need. The number of traveling nurses that could normally step in has decreased because of the same burnout affecting other health-care workers, she said, and most of those who remain have already been hired.

Some doctors’ offices have managed to find temporary or as-needed staff members to fill gaps. Others have temporarily condensed their locations. At least one office wrote to parents to ask for both their patience and suggestions of job candidates. They received several leads in response, Beers said.

But most pediatricians said they are focusing on maximizing their remaining employees’ efficiency while trying not to overwork them and drive them to quit. More than 450,000 health-care workers have left the industry since February 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this month. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services committed $100 million to recruit and retain clinicians.

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