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'We've been waiting 2.5 years for this.' Vaccination of babies and toddlers begins in Richmond area

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By mid-morning Wednesday, the Henrico Health District could no longer take walk-ins for their baby and toddler vaccination event. Sixty youngsters received Moderna shots.

The babies arrived to the Henrico Health Department building Wednesday carried in the crooks of their parents’ arms, wearing brightly colored T-shirts and dresses. It was the first day of health department-sponsored COVID-19 vaccination for youngsters, and some parents saw it as a milestone.

The clinic gave 60 Moderna shots to 60 babies and toddlers ages 6 months to 5 years old, either in the leg or arm.

A study suggests most parents will wait to vaccinate their children due to concerns over the amount of time it takes to build immunity and over side effects.

But Dr. Suzanne Lavoie, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, called the shot safe and urged parents to consider it as soon as possible.

“What’s important is getting your child vaccinated,” Lavoie said.

For Breanna Detwiler, vaccinating her kids means a chance to visit her husband’s family, who she hasn’t seen in years, in Ireland. Since the pandemic began, it felt too risky to travel internationally without vaccinating their children.

They bought plane tickets for late July, hoping the vaccines would arrive in time. On Wednesday, her 3½-year-old son, John Maverick Corkey, got his first of two Moderna doses. He showed no signs of distress as he exited the building.

“It’s huge,” Detwiler said of childhood vaccination.

She understands the vaccines won’t necessarily prevent infection, but they give kids an immune response expected to keep them out of the hospital.

“I feel like we’ve been waiting two-and-a-half years for this,” Detwiler said.

There was enough interest in shots Wednesday that the Henrico Health District filled all its appointments and, by late morning, could accept no more walk-ins. There was a line of people waiting outside the building when staffers arrived at work.

Gregg Couch brought his 2-year-old daughter, Birdie, for her first shot of Moderna. Birdie was born in the pandemic, and vaccination is key, he said. He didn’t think long about whether he would vaccinate his daughter.

“We’re all about it,” he said.

While interest was strong on the first day, a national poll suggests most parents aren’t eager to vaccinate their kids immediately. Only one in five parents will do so right away, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Dr. Melissa Viray, interim health director for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts, understands their hesitancy. But she still urged parents to vaccinate their children.

Weighing the costs and benefits of vaccination points toward vaccination, she said.

While cases and hospitalizations are relatively low right now, new variants will continue to be a threat. The safest way to prepare families and to try to return to normal life is through vaccination, Lavoie said.

“We know this is a safe vaccine,” she said.

Lavoie doesn’t recommend one shot over the other. Whichever shot you can get, go ahead and get it, she said.

The Moderna vaccine requires only two shots, but 1 in 6 children developed a fever of 100.4 or higher in trials. That’s not out of the ordinary, Lavoie said.

In most vaccines, a percentage of recipients show some kind of reaction. In childhood vaccines, fever is the most common reaction and, with the Moderna vaccine, the fevers were generally mild. They can be treated with Tylenol or ibuprofen.

While she’d prefer the rate of fever be lower, it’s not fair to call Moderna a bad vaccine because of that, she said.

The Pfizer shot requires more time to develop a strong immune response. Recipients get three shots, and the last shot comes 11 weeks after the first.

While a third shot requires more patience and another doctor’s visit, it amps up the immune response similar to what an adult gets with a booster. Pfizer had an efficacy in trials of 76% for children 6 months to 2 years and 82% for children 2 to 4.

Lavoie said authorities may soon recommend a third shot for Moderna to heighten its immunity. With two shots, Moderna was 37% effective for 6 months to 5 years old and 51% effective for babies 6 months to 2 years.

Those numbers may sound low, but the highly contagious omicron variant rewrote experts’ understanding of the kind of protection vaccines provide. While contracting the virus after full vaccination is common, getting so sick that a person needs hospital care is rare.

Once a booster is added, vaccines have shown in adults an 80% to 90% efficacy for preventing hospitalization, Lavoie said.

“There was still protection against severe disease and hospitalization, which are the key things as we’re thinking about getting out of this pandemic — preventing deaths, preventing those severe outcomes,” she said.

More local pediatricians have requested Pfizer than Moderna, Viray said. But she doesn’t believe the efficacy or side effects are the reason why. It’s probably logistical: Pediatricians have been giving Pfizer shots to school-age children for months while a Moderna shot wasn’t available for that age group.

The children who got their shots Wednesday at the health department all received Moderna. On Wednesday afternoon, the first shipment of Pfizer vaccines arrived, and the district will begin offering those Thursday.

With more inventory, extra appointments have been added. There are about 40 slots available at each event in Henrico and Richmond, and each event still has availability. If not every appointment fills, walk-ins will be accepted. Each recipient will receive a private clinical room.

The health district recommends parents make an appointment at vase.vdh.virginia.gov to guarantee their spot. Residents can also call (804) 205-3501.

The health district plans to have events at the Henrico East Health Department on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon; at the Henrico West Health Department on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon; and at the downtown location on Thursdays from 1 to 4 p.m.

You do not have to live in Henrico or Richmond to get a shot. Residents can also request shots be delivered to them at home.

Pediatricians and pharmacies also have vaccines for babies and toddlers.

Every parent who wants a shot for their youngster should be able to get one in two weeks, Viray said.

“It’s re-energizing to see how excited families are to get their youngest vaccinated,” she said.

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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