Pediatricians lead campaign to sell wary parents on vaccinating their kids

Annie Brynga, 13, and her mother Becca, seen in Essex on Thursday, May 13, 2021. Becca has concerns about Annie receiving a cover innoculation. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Becca Brynga of Milton, Vermont, is pro-vaccine. 

Brynga received her second Pfizer dose about a month ago, and her two kids — a 13-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son — have received every vaccine available to them. 

But the relative newness of the Covid-19 vaccines has given Brynga pause about getting her kids vaccinated right away, she said in an interview last week. 

Brynga isn’t alone, according to Vermont pediatricians. They’ve fielded a growing number of questions from concerned parents — mostly vaccinated themselves — about whether the vaccines are safe for their children, and what the long-term health effects might be. 

With children between ages 12 and 15 now eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine, pediatricians will play an important role in getting wary parents on board with vaccinating their children sooner rather than later. 

“I think it’s key to being a parent and just having that ability to sleep at night knowing that your kid, if something were to be questioned or go wrong, you have someone that you trust you can go to,” Brynga said. 

‘Time is of the essence’

More than anecdotal evidence suggests there’s a sizable body of nervous parents. Among those with children ages 12 to 15, only about three in 10 said they would get their child a vaccinatin as soon as it was available, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study published last week.

About 25% said they’d take a wait-and-see approach. 

But “time is of the essence,” said Denise Aronzon, a pediatrician with Timber Lane Pediatrics, a Primary Care Health Partners practice based in Chittenden County. 

Vermont has thus far avoided a much-feared fourth wave of the coronavirus, but the spread of new and more infectious variants still poses a risk, Aronzon said.

“The sooner we get large numbers of Vermonters vaccinated,” she said, “the faster the pandemic will quell.”

Enter pediatricians, who can count themselves among the limited few who parents trust with the health of their children. 

Pediatricians “are trusted by parents more than medicine or science in general,” according to Devon Greyson, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who studies public health communications.

Dr. Joe Nasca says when parents ask him about vaccinating their children, he often points to a picture of his six grandchildren and four grandchildren, all of whom have been or will be vaccinated. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

That’s especially true for pediatricians like Joe Nasca, who has operated an independent practice in the town of Georgia since 2006 and has worked in Franklin County since 1991. Nasca said he’s on to the second generation of many of his patients. 

Their parents know that when they ask him about vaccines, they’ll get a straight story, Nasca said. Often he’ll point to a picture that hangs in his office of his six children and four grandchildren, all of whom have been or will be vaccinated.  

“That’s probably the shortest way of explaining how important you think something is, is trying to treat everyone the way you treat your family,” Nasca said.

‘Listen and understand’

It’s a similar story for Colleen Moran, a pediatrician with Lamoille Health Partners in Morrisville. Moran said she cried more on Thursday than she had in years — in relief — when she took her 12-year-old daughter to a walk-in vaccination site. 

But there’s no catch-all approach to public health messaging, Greyson said. Some find the science behind the vaccines reassuring. Others just want to know: Is this safe for my kids? 

“As a pediatrician, it’s so important to listen and understand what it is that’s leaving a little bit of unrest,” Moran said. 

Joshua Kantrowitz, a pediatrician with St. Johnsbury Pediatrics, an arm of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, said he’s noted an uptick in questions from parents as well. 

Kantrowitz said parents who come in for a routine checkup will often ask for his opinion on the vaccines on their way out the door — “hand on the doorknob” questions, he calls them. 

“The decision-making is so complex,” Kantrowitz said. “I didn’t understand it until I was a parent, when I was making decisions for my own kids.”  

But this informal exchange of medical information isn’t an option for people who don’t have a primary care provider, or ready access to a medical professional. 

Kantrowitz added that reliable access to transportation is one of the biggest challenges for patients in his area. 

Ask the pediatrician

In part to combat those barriers, the Vermont Department of Health has launched a series of virtual panels, hosted by pediatricians, to give parents a chance to ask questions about the vaccine and their children. 

The first of eight panels was held Thursday night and hosted by Leah Costello and Elizabeth Hunt, colleagues of Aronzon at Timber Lane Pediatrics. 

Parents asked whether there’s an increased risk for vaccinating a child with asthma (answer: no, the vaccine is safe for children with mild to severe cases), or if it could affect their children’s ability to have kids later in life (answer: no, there isn’t any evidence that the vaccines affect fertility). 

The panel also included a video message from Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who deconstructed the science behind the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. 

It’s like a handwritten recipe that gets passed down within the family, Bell said, but for a spike protein instead of a bolognese sauce. 

“Then once [the spike protein] is made, the recipe goes away, and the mRNA just kind of disintegrates,” Bell said. 

Vaccination sites for ages 12-15

Vermont’s vaccine stockpile is in far better shape than it was in December, when the first Covid-19 shot was administered. Beyond getting parents on board, the state is working to make sure children have access to the vaccine.    

A list of school-based vaccination sites open to 12- to 15-year-olds is now available on the Agency of Education’s website.  

Brynga said she and her daughter talked through their concerns after Wednesday’s announcement. Eventually, Brynga scheduled her daughter to get vaccinated toward the end of May. 

It’ll give them time to do some more research — and of course, to talk to the family pediatrician. 

“It still makes me a little nervous, and I’ll probably be up at night thinking about it,” Brynga said. “But she’s also a responsible child, and teaching her how to make decisions for herself is also important.

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