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Bethel children ages 5 to 11 began receiving COVID-19 vaccines

YKHC began offering Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to 5-to 11-year olds on Nov. 4, 2021.
Jeff Chen
Alaska Public Media
YKHC began offering Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines to 5-to 11-year olds on Nov. 4, 2021.

Children in Bethel ages 5- to 11-years-old began receiving COVID-19 vaccines on Nov. 4. Vaccinations will begin in Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages in the following days. Here's what parents and guardians of children can expect when taking their child in for vaccination, and why medical providers are encouraging everyone in this age group to get the shot.

Health officials hope that widespread vaccination of 5- to 11-year-olds will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 across the region, and help protect children and adults alike.

YKHC has been preparing for this moment. Dr. Ellen Hodges is Chief of Staff at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. She said that she and another physician were flipping a coin to see who got to vaccinate the first child in Bethel. Before vaccinations began, YKHC held a virtual “town hall” to provide information and answer the public’s questions about vaccinating this younger age group.

“Thanks to everyone for bringing their kids in. I’m so excited to have the vaccines start today," Hodges said.

Hodges walked the virtual audience through the vaccination process. She recommends parents and guardians budget about a half hour for it. In Bethel, vaccinations are being offered on the second floor of the hospital in the Wellness Center.

“You can expect to be completing some paperwork, which is a consent form to give us permission to vaccinate your child,” Hodges explained.

Then there are the the papers explaining the vaccine.

“Then your child will undergo vaccination. Because we want to keep your child under observation for about 15 minutes after vaccination, you’ll be asked to wait in the Wellness Center. There are chairs set up to wait for about 15 minutes. And if everything is fine, at the end of 15 minutes then you’ll be free to go,” Hodges said.

The observation period is to watch for any signs of anaphylaxis. This reaction is rare and often easily treated with allergy medication. Hodges said that the vaccination process at village clinics will be similar. Families should plan for their children to return in 21 days, or about three weeks, to receive their second vaccine dose.

In Bethel, parents and guardians can call YKHC to schedule a vaccination appointment for their child at 907-543-6949. To sign up your child in a village, call your local village clinic. YKHC will begin offering vaccinations in villages beginning Nov. 7, and will release that schedule at a later date. It also plans to offer vaccinations in schools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds on Nov. 2. Doses for this age group are one-third the volume of those for older people. That’s not because children tend to be smaller, but rather because their immune systems are more robust and require less vaccine to protect them. The smaller doses will be administered with smaller needles. Common vaccine side effects include a sore arm, fever, and fatigue. They usually resolve in a few days and can be treated with Tylenol.

One of the motivations to vaccinate kids is to help keep them in school and lessen stress on families.

“We learned that this past year that it’s really hard for kids to not be in school. It’s hard on them socially. It’s hard on them academically. It’s hard on them emotionally. And the rates of depression and anxiety in that age group is astonishing,” Hodges said.

Another motivation for vaccination is to protect children from COVID-19 and from spreading the virus to others.

“We know that there are almost no effects as far as we know from the COVID vaccine," Dr. Matthew Hirschfeld, a pediatrician at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, said.

The effects of the COVID-19 disease, on the other hand, can be long-term. For instance, multi-system inflammatory syndrome is rare but often dangerous and often develops after a child seems to recover from the virus. Three children in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have developed this syndrome. Dr. Elizabeth Bates, Director of Infection Control with YKHC, said that the children didn’t have previous medical conditions. Children are also at risk for long COVID, which has no known treatment.

“I was reading one study that anywhere from 2% to 5% of kids can develop long COVID, and that’s pretty scary. That means maybe they can’t play for as long, or can’t go out and fish or hunt the same way they did before they got COVID," Bates said.

YKHC is encouraging all 5- to 11-year-olds to get vaccinated against COVID-19. About 40% of cases in the region are in children younger than age 18. That’s higher than the national average because of the region’s younger population. Bates said that hospitalizations of children have increased since the delta variant surge.

“We’ve seen increased hospitalizations in children as young as 10 months,” Bates said.

The CDC recommends not getting the vaccine only if you’re allergic to any of its ingredients. These allergies are rare. The Pfizer vaccine has 10 ingredients, and Bates says that many foods have more.

“There are more ingredients in Blue Bunny ice cream, and I will eat that stuff all day without any hesitation. So I understand the vaccine is different from ice cream, but thinking about how we’re exposed to lots of things all the time, and these ingredients in this vaccine are very safe. It’s now been given to millions of people around the world," Bates said.

This vaccine is becoming available to children as annual respiratory illnesses in the region begin increasing. Bates says children in the region have a high risk of chronic lung disease. During most winters, children from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta flood Anchorage pediatric intensive care beds with severe cases of RSV and bronchiolitis.

COVID-19 cases have begun declining in the state, but still remain four times higher than the national average. Health officials stress that Alaska’s health care system cannot handle a surge of both COVID-19 and respiratory illnesses this winter. To prevent that, YKHC is encouraging COVID-19 and flu vaccines. They can be administered the same day and are available in the same locations within YKHC.

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