The Biden administration pushed American families to immunize infants and small children for COVID-19 on Thursday, deploying ads intended to tug at heartstrings as it contends with Republicans and parents who are leery or outright opposed to shots for children as young as 6 months.
The Department of Health and Human Services released a 30-second ad urging parents to protect children 4 and younger, who became eligible for shots this week, while the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said COVID-19 has been one of the top five causes of death in children since the start of the pandemic.
“It’s especially concerning to see severe outcomes in our youngest children,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said. “Children should not need to be hospitalized, they should not need to go to the ICU to be on a ventilator, and they certainly should not lose their life to this virus at such a young age.
“During the omicron wave, we saw a huge spike in COVID cases in children and the highest hospitalization rates in children than at any other point in this pandemic,” she said.
The Democratic National Committee promoted the rollout as a notch in Mr. Biden’s belt as he searches for wins in a challenging political environment.
“This makes the United States the first country in the world to get shots to their youngest kids,” DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison said.
Nearly 19 million children are in the newly eligible group from 6 months to 4 years, but there are signs that many families will not bother. Some political figures have voiced opposition.
Immunization managers say they expect an early surge of interest in the pediatric shots, which use smaller doses than adult versions, before gradual uptake as children make regular visits to their doctors.
The administration said it dispatched 4 million doses of the pediatric vaccines this week but did not have reportable data on the number of vaccines administered.
“When we have those in a most complete fashion, we’ll be able to report those publicly,” Dr. Walensky said.
Getting children vaccinated has been a hard sell. Less than one-third of children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated since the shots became available to that age group in November.
A major poll in April found the share of parents who said they would definitely not seek the pediatric shots was bigger than the share that planned to get their children vaccinated right away, 27% versus 18%.
The Kaiser Family Foundation also found that 38% of parents were in a “wait and see” mode and 11% said they would get their youngest children vaccinated only if required.
Federal officials said thousands of children 4 and younger have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and more than 400 of them have died. Still, that number is just 0.1% of overall COVID-19 deaths in the country, raising questions about the importance of vaccinating the youngest children.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, concluded that the risks outweigh the benefits for children younger than 5. Publix, a grocery store chain based in his state, told the Tampa Bay Times that it will not offer the vaccines to children younger than 5 “at this time.”
Several Republican House leaders in Tennessee sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee urging him to slow down the pediatric rollout.
“We ask that you direct the Tennessee Department of Health to halt distribution, promotion or recommendation of COVID-19 vaccines for our youngest Tennesseans,” the state lawmakers wrote. “We simply cannot recommend injecting an mRNA vaccine into children who have never been at serious risk of death or hospitalization from COVID-19.”
A group in Texas that typically focuses on resistance to mandates said it objected to the pediatric vaccine, in particular.
“Texans for Vaccine Choice stands with all parents in their pursuit of making informed decisions for their children. The COVID shot is no different,” said Rebecca Hardy, director of Texans for Vaccine Choice.
“However, we do take exception to the Biden administration experimenting on our children with these liability-free, fast-tracked mRNA jabs in a population that has a statistically zero percent chance of severe disease and death,” she said.
Some doctors see nothing unusual about trying to prevent disease in children, even if they are more robust than the frail and elderly and have lower rates of disease.
“As a society, if we find preventable diseases, we should prevent these diseases. Pediatric cancer is by far one of the most philanthropically funded medical conditions, and [it] happens at a far lower rate than adult cancer. But I believe as a society we emphasize protecting kids,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“We have to stay consistent as a society. If we are finding diseases that are preventable, then let’s prevent them,” he said.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said 45,000 children younger than 5 were hospitalized with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and 10,000 were admitted to ICUs.
“We vaccinated children against rotavirus, meningitis and chickenpox, which have lower burdens of illness than COVID,” he said.
Mr. Biden is heavily promoting the pediatric vaccines as he contends with inflation and high gasoline prices, which have been major drags on his presidency. He is touting tangible achievements where he can, including an update to land mine policy and a major gun control overhaul in Congress.
Twice this week, Mr. Biden emphasized that the U.S. is the first country to vaccinate the youngest children. Israel is normally out front on the use of the Pfizer vaccines.
Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 coordinator, credited the work of U.S.-based drugmakers with the Food and Drug Administration for putting Americans at the forefront.
“I think it’s been a lot of very proactive work on these vaccines that has actually made America pretty consistently a leader, certainly on the mRNA vaccines, in terms of authorizing it for different populations,” Dr. Jha said.
Australia is reviewing a request from Moderna and could vaccinate children 6 months and older in a matter of weeks.
In the U.S., HHS ads released Thursday featured parents walking with their young children, playing and snuggling.
“You look at them and think, ‘I’ll always keep you safe,’” one 30-second ad says. “Now all kids 6 months and older can get a COVID vaccine. So moms and dads everywhere have one more way to keep that promise.”
The DNC tried to create political pain for Mr. DeSantis, a Republican whose state is the only one not to preorder shots for the newly eligible group.
Mr. DeSantis said he wouldn’t stand in the way of doctors’ offices and hospitals that want to order the vaccines directly, though some pediatric groups complained about a delay.
“If I were in Florida, I would be hopping mad right now,” Mr. Harrison said.
Kevin Cho Tipton, a nurse practitioner in Florida, slammed the governor in the DNC call.
“He’s politicizing something that should not be political,” he said. “He’s creating controversies, making it harder for me to take care of my patients.”
The Florida Health Department says vaccines are being delivered to participating pharmacies, federally qualified health care centers and health care providers using an online portal known as Florida SHOTS.
“The department encourages parents to discuss vaccination decisions directly with their children’s health care providers, which is exactly why providers are charged with ordering the vaccines they need,” the health department said. “Last year, the state of Florida shifted COVID-19 response to an effective locally led effort. COVID-19 is endemic and health care providers are charged with managing patient care.”