Op-ed: Vaccine hesitancy can prevent students going back to school and families from being safe

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As a pediatrician it has always been a pleasure giving parents the best medical advice possible to help their child live healthy and productive lives. But even before COVID-19 became a part of our everyday language, much of what I had to do was convince parents that vaccines were safe. Despite years of polio, chickenpox and measles vaccines being required for children to go to school for decades, I would still be asked if the vaccines for them were OK. Now that schools will be open again soon and the Delta variant is infecting more New Yorkers, we have to reduce these hesitancies to get more students vaccinated before they go back into class.

Despite efforts by many elected officials and government agencies, the South Bronx still has some of the lowest vaccination rates in New York City, in addition to a positivity rate around 4%. This combination could lead to a hyper-local outbreak turning back the progress that took so long to make.

The truth is I can’t say I’m surprised. Many parents truly feel they are violating their child by putting a needle in them. For instance, despite the fact that there are many lifesaving childhood vaccines available by injection, one mother only chose to give her child the Rotavirus vaccine, because it is given orally. This decision, as a result of “needle phobia,” left her child vulnerable to many diseases that can result in severe illness or even death.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, even though children are less at risk than adults, “all children are at (some) risk of severe illness, hospitalization, or even death from a COVID-19 infection.” As children are going to camp and participating in other social activities though, we are already seeing an increase of cases in them, especially with the Delta variant. We have already seen some outbreaks and it has been reported that up to 1.9% of all childhood cases can result in a severe case, leading to hospitalization and even the loss of life. Where COVID-19 vaccinations are low, like the South Bronx, this scenario is particularly dangerous. Theoretically, in a community with an outbreak of 10,000 COVID-19 cases in children, that could leave up to 200 children hospitalized with severe disease and risk for death.

After hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered, we know that vaccinated parents and adolescents who live with children is the safest and most effective way to protect those who are unable to get a vaccine yet.

Since the Delta variant spreads more easily, if your child is planning on being in a classroom they are putting themselves more at risk of becoming infected, which means you and those around you can become infected too. While those who are vaccinated are strongly protected against the Delta variant, if they become infected they may still have symptoms similar to those of a minor cold including a cough, fever or headache, in addition to a loss of smell. But those who are not vaccinated can wind up in the hospital.

Alegria Health & Wellness has been administering the vaccine as a pop-up site for months now, and one of the most common questions we get from patients coming in is about the breakthrough cases. These instances are very rare compared to all the people who have received a vaccine. And those who are vaccinated have less of a chance of spreading COVID-19 to other people.

So if you or your children are planning on going back to school this fall, make sure they are vaccinated. It is the best way to keep yourself and fellow students safe, as well as your loved ones.

Dr. Joel Rose is pediatrician at Alegria Health and Wellness, a medical center located in the South Bronx.