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Some parents jumped at COVID shots for kids. Others held back

Now that Alex de Cordoba is finally able to get his 6-year-old daughter vaccinated against COVID-19, what are they going to do next?

“We’re going to Disneyland,” De Cordoba said.

The Laurel Canyon resident jumped at the chance to get the COVID vaccine for his older daughter, one of the tens of millions of children nationwide who became newly eligible for the shots this week, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the pediatric vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11.

Although COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen in Los Angeles County from their summer peak, De Cordoba has been regularly reminded that the pandemic is not yet over, most recently when the elementary school informed him that his daughter would have to quarantine after a COVID case there, forcing them to postpone her birthday party. He has remained cautious about travel and other potentially risky activities with his kids as they await their chance to get vaccinated.

“As a parent, the saddest thing for me is realizing that this pandemic could have been curtailed so much more when vaccines became available” if more people had gotten the shots, De Cordoba said. “It’s imperative to get vaccinated and get back to normal life.”

For him and his family, that means going to Disneyland. For Carla Brizuela-Perez, who lives in Walnut, it means finally bringing her twin boys back to indoor playgrounds and jungle gyms, which she has shied away from during the pandemic.

Being able to finally get her 6-year-olds vaccinated “brings a sense of peace and comfort and knowing that we did our part to protect our families and our loved ones and our community,” Brizuela-Perez said.

And for Jennifer Arrow, it means not just the concrete things — dining inside restaurants with her family or visiting a Chuck E. Cheese and letting the kids go wild on pizza — but lifting the emotional burden of the pandemic.

“I haven’t trusted the world in general since the pandemic happened. It just seemed like it was a risky place to be with other people and with little kids in particular,” said Arrow, a stay-at-home parent of four children in Culver City.

“Once the kids are immunized, I think I’ll feel comfortable believing that ‘normal’ is back, such as it is,” Arrow said.

Many parents eagerly hustled to schedule appointments this week for their newly eligible kids. Kaiser Permanente said that on Wednesday, the first day it opened appointments, it had scheduled more than 67,000 vaccinations over the next six weeks for children ages 5 to 11 in Southern California.

In Bellflower, Brianne Archer said she had been closely following each turn of the federal process for rolling out the pediatric shots, so much so that her 6-year-old daughter remarked one day about getting vaccinated, “We won’t know until November 2nd, that’s when they’re meeting!”

She made vaccination appointments for both her children at CVS. Children may not be at “huge risk of COVID,” Archer said, but “if they don’t have to suffer, I should take advantage of that.” She’s looking forward to taking them to visit her mother in Ohio.

Young children have been at lower risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 than adults, with between 0% and 0.03% of cases among children resulting in death, according to data gathered from the majority of states by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Still, that made COVID-19 comparable with the eighth-leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 11 in the yearlong period ending Oct. 2, with 66 deaths reported nationally in that time, based on a CDC analysis comparing mortality data from 2019. Children can also suffer from “long COVID” in which symptoms linger for months, including fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and muscle and joint pain.

Children have made up an increasing share of coronavirus cases as older people have been able to get vaccinated, with 5- to 11-year-olds accounting for more than 10% of cases across the country as of early October, even though they comprise only 8.7% of the U.S. population.

The rapid spread of the Delta variant led to a national spike in new COVID-19 hospitalizations for children and teens in August, adding new urgency to the push for a pediatric vaccine. Health officials say that vaccinating children will not only protect them from severe illness but limit its spread and mutation and help blunt or avert a fifth wave of the virus this winter.

National surveys show that parents are split on vaccinating children ages 5 to 11: Although 27% of parents who were surveyed said they would get them vaccinated right away, 33% said they would “wait and see,” and 30% said they would definitely not get the shots for their kids, recent surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Some 5% said they would get their children vaccinated only if it were required.

“Not every vaccinated parent is going to go out and decide to get their child vaccinated, but I think parents who have decided to get the vaccine for themselves are more likely to be convincible when it comes to their kids,” said Liz Hamel, vice president and director of public opinion and survey research for Kaiser Family Foundation.

Laura Powell said she and her husband were “first in line” to get COVID-19 vaccines for themselves, but she has balked at the idea of a vaccine mandate for their 5- and 9-year-old boys, who go to school in Pleasant Hill in Contra Costa County. In a letter to federal regulators, she said that they could not agree to subject their children to “an unknown risk to their health for a(n) infinitesimally small benefit.”

“We are just hoping that there will be sufficient data on safety before any mandate comes,” Powell said.

The CDC has recommended the vaccines for children, saying they are safe and effective and that in clinical trials, side effects from the shots were “mild, self-limiting and similar to those seen in adults and with other vaccines recommended for children.”

“The most common side effect was a sore arm,” the agency said this week. “COVID-19 vaccines have undergone — and will continue to undergo — the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history.”

Dr. Lucio Loza, a family medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente in Santa Ana, said “it’s totally understandable for people to have hesitation” when it comes to their kids.

But “the science is solid,” and clinical trials for younger children have been very successful, Loza said.

“Considering how many vaccines have been given throughout the world” — a number now in the billions — ” it makes me very comfortable to get the vaccine, to promote the vaccine, and to give the vaccine to my friends and my family — and the ones I love the most, my kids,” said Loza, whose 7- and 11-year-old sons were vaccinated Thursday at Kaiser Permanente in Tustin.

Despite such assurances, more than three-fourths of parents surveyed said they were very or somewhat concerned that not enough was known about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine in children, the Kaiser Family Foundation found. Nearly as many — 71% — said they feared their child might experience serious side effects from the shots.

Granada Hills resident Rostom Sarkissian has kept his young daughters in online classes because of concerns about COVID-19. He is vaccinated and has urged others in his family to get the shots.

But Sarkissian plans to hold off until January or February to get his 5-year-old and 7-year-old vaccinated unless coronavirus cases hit high levels this winter, saying that he wants to see the data about side effects after more children have gotten the shots. His hope is that once they do get vaccinated, he can stop “the constant risk assessment” about them visiting family.

Nicole Rieck, from Oceanside in San Diego County, said she is not opposed to vaccines in general but cites the newness of the COVID-19 vaccine as making her cautious about inoculating her 5-year-old daughter.

She and her husband also are not yet vaccinated. “I want to see more data from long-term studies about side effects, how effective it is over long periods of time,” Rieck said. “And I’ve always been more cautious with what I give my children.”

In Orange County, Dr. Kate Williamson said she reassures parents concerned about long-term effects that when the vaccine is administered, “the particles that are put into the body to make the immune system create this army are literally gone within days.”

For the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, messenger RNA “is truly being a messenger, telling the body, ‘Hey, you should build this army,’ and then that messenger dissolves,” said Williamson, a pediatrician at Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County. “And what you’re left with is a smarter immune system because now it’s been warned.”

Besides fears about vaccine effects, some parents also had practical concerns about getting the shots for their children, Kaiser Family Foundation surveys show. More than a third said they were concerned about needing to take time off from work to get their children vaccinated or to care for them if they had side effects.

A quarter of the parents said they were worried they might have to pay an out-of-pocket cost, even though the vaccine is free to the public. Those concerns were much more common among lower-income parents than wealthier ones, the surveys showed.

As the most eager parents begin to book vaccine appointments for their kids, some have become hopeful the shots could lead to easing other COVID restrictions for children, such as masking at school. Kim Silverstein, who arranged a vaccine appointment Thursday for her 11-year-old son, said she hopes L.A. Unified will extend its vaccine mandate to 5- to 11-year-olds by spring break.

“If 100% of students and adults at school were fully vaxxed, then I could see unmasking at school become reality,” Silverstein said.

Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Lucas Money contributed to this report.

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