Since vaccines for children 6 months to 5 years old were approved last week, parents have scrambled to get the shot for their youngsters. They’re conferring through Facebook and texts, calling clinics and doctors offices, and — when the state’s VaxFinder website had a few hours’ delay listing sites for young kids — experiencing traumatic flashbacks to last year’s vaccine rollout debacle.
Surveys suggest that only a minority of parents intend to vaccinate their little ones against COVID-19. But those who want the vaccine want it badly, and they want it now.
“Like every new rollout it takes a couple of weeks for the system to get up and running,” said Sigalle Reiss, director of public health and human services for Brookline.
Pharmacies are allowed to vaccinate only those 3 years and older, and not every pediatrician is offering the vaccine or has yet received shipments. With little communication about these issues, some parents have been frustrated or confused — although they’ve experienced nothing like last year’s balky vaccine-finder website, which left people struggling to find appointments.
“The minute it gets approved, everybody wants it instantly,” Reiss said. “We tell people to be patient. It’s going to be widely available.”
But Kate Dineen, mother of a toddler, was not inclined to patience.
“I’ve been desperate for this day to come,” she said. Her 2 ½-year-old Danny has asthma; a bad cold can land him in the emergency room, and she worried about what COVID-19 could do.
Dineen, an executive at a nonprofit and resident of Boston’s South End, called her pediatrician, who could provide the shots but wasn’t sure when. Likewise, the nearest CVS MinuteClinic.
She spent Tuesday morning refreshing the state’s VaxFinder website, but it still wasn’t listing places where children under 5 could receive shots. (That finally happened later in the day.)
So she searched VaxFinder for state-sponsored vaccine sites that served older children and started calling them. That’s when she hit paydirt: The Whittier Street Health Center had received its shipment of vaccines for the youngest kids and would call back to make an appointment.
Her son got his shot of Moderna vaccine Wednesday afternoon, less than a week after the FDA authorized the vaccines and four days after the CDC recommended them.
“What I’m most looking forward to,” Dineen said, “is just having a little bit less anxiety about living a normal life.”
The vaccines for the youngest children pose new challenges. No one wants squalling babies at a mass vaccine clinic or in the aisles of a pharmacy.
The CVS MinuteClinics, while located inside the drugstore, are medical offices staffed by clinicians, and they’re vaccinating children as young as 18 months.
For many youngsters, especially the babies, the pediatrician’s office might be the best venue. But pediatricians face their own logistical challenges. This vaccine is currently available only in 10-dose vials, which should be used up within a day. To avoid waste, doctors need to schedule vaccination clinics or otherwise make sure that 10 patients will get shots before opening a vial. Some doctors are referring their patients elsewhere while others are only now ordering the vaccine in the face of demand.
“It feels a bit like it did back at the beginning of the vaccine search for adults,” said Shaina Korman-Houston of Arlington, recalling how she drove an hour to get her own shot. “It doesn’t seem quite that bad. But there has been a long time for various different places to set up the infrastructure and it just hasn’t come together the way it should have given the lead time.”
Korman-Houston, a real estate director at an affordable housing nonprofit, thinks she’ll be able to get a Moderna shot for her 2 ½-year-old from his pediatrician on Friday. But she’s not sure because the office won’t start scheduling shots until Thursday. Her son already had a serious bout of COVID-19 that left him coughing for weeks.
The parents of children in her son’s day care share tips on a WhatsApp group. “Everyone has been spending the last two days texting each other about where they’ve heard vaccines are available when,” she said. “Everyone’s trying to get the vaccine one day earlier.”
There’s another wrinkle. The two vaccines are considered equally effective, once all the doses are taken. But with the Pfizer vaccine it takes longer to become fully protected. The Moderna vaccine requires two doses 28 days apart. The Pfizer vaccine requires three shots, the first two 21 days apart, with at least eight weeks required between the second and third doses.
Many parents prefer the Moderna shot, but on Tuesday, VaxFinder listed only one site offering Moderna. By Wednesday afternoon, there were a dozen listed, and many pediatricians were also offering it.
Noor Johnson of Cambridge is relieved to have an appointment to vaccinate her 21-month-old daughter at her pediatrician’s office on Friday. Her family has been avoiding indoor dining and air travel – but they have a trip planned later this summer. So she logged onto her pediatrician’s patient portal earlier this week and kept refreshing until the appointments finally loaded. “It does feel like a big relief to be able to meet this milestone after waiting for such a long time,” said Johnson, an anthropologist and researcher.
When the vaccine became available, Grace McGathey of Belmont felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. Last year, she had been the one finding appointments for her friends. But now, caring for a 10-month-old, she was sleep-deprived and her “mommy brain” left her feeling impaired.
McGathey, a social worker, could have gotten a Pfizer shot at her baby’s pediatrician but was hoping for Moderna because it would be effective faster. A friend kept checking with Boston Children’s Hospital, and as soon as a phone number to schedule appointments was available, texted it over. Within five minutes, McGathey had an appointment to vaccinate her son on Thursday.
Reiss, the Brookline health director, points out that public health officials face a bigger challenge — to reach those who aren’t banging down doors in pursuit of shots, people who don’t have transportation, time off from work, computers, help with scheduling, or accurate information about vaccine safety.
“The people that are clamoring for it will get it,” Reiss said. “Our job is to work with those families that have barriers to access.”