With New York expecting its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccines for children in the coming days, CNHI’s New York office invited Dr. Joseph R. Sellers, an experienced pediatrician and internal medicine specialist at Bassett Medical Center at Cooperstown and Cobleskill Hospital, set out to discuss the impending availability of those doses. State officials have decided not to mandate the shots for children, but instead let the parents and guardians make those decisions.
dr. Sellers, who started his practice in Cobleskill 32 years ago, was elected president of the New York State Medical Society in May. He was interviewed Friday by CNHI reporter Joe Mahoney.
QUESTION: How important is the federal approval of the pediatric vaccines for COVID-19?
SELLERS: The vaccine is the number 1 tool we have for this pandemic. After all the stress and strain experienced by patients’ families and caregivers over the past year and a half, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Getting the vaccinations in young children will be a big step. The FDA was very positive (about its effectiveness). Hopefully, by the end of next week, we’ll be putting shots in the arms of kids (ages 5-11).
Q: Why do a significant number of people remain hesitant about the vaccines after the federal government approves them after lengthy trials?
SELLERS: It seems that there are three groups. There are people who knock on the door and say, ‘When can I get it? When can I get it?’ And you had people rushing to try to get vaccinated. We have people calling us every day to ask when my younger child can be vaccinated. I have a daughter in Buffalo who has my three grandchildren. She calls me every day: “Grandpa, when are you going to vaccinate the kids?” So that group is there.
There is another group of people who are resistant to science, who are difficult to convince of its safety and efficacy. But there’s a middle group of people who are just asking questions, or seeking information, who are hesitant, but willing to have an open mind, and I think that’s where, as a medical profession, we need to help. We need to be there and answer those people’s questions. I tell patients, “You know, you trust your doctor with other aspects of your health care. Listen to them, ask them the questions, let your doctor reassure you and help you gain confidence in vaccination.” And I think that’s where our efforts should be focused.
I hope that the group that wants it quickly and the group that has some questions that we can answer that those two groups will be the vast majority of parents. And those who are resistant will be small. That is what we can hope and pray for.
Q: Do you think more education is needed from the group that is hesitant about the vaccines? Because there are some in that group who also don’t like the masks, and so if you want to get rid of masks, it seems more people are getting vaccinated to get us where we need to be to lift the mask mandate?
SELLERS: “Yes, I think that’s true. Although I wear a mask all day, every day to do my job. You know, I don’t quite understand why some people are so against masks. But yes, if we want to have children back in all their participation in sports, social activities, if we want children to be able to play and socialize together – which is such a big part of children’s developmental task, so much of what they have to learn.You know, the expression: ‘everything what you need to know in life you learned in kindergarten”, learn to get along in the sandbox with others and share toys and all those things. Children who have to be isolated from each other I think has been the biggest burden on our children, and having the vaccine is how we get back to normal. It’s the main way back to normal.
Q: How would you rate how children have been affected by the restrictions on their group activities? In some cases, for example, high school parties and annual school outings were cancelled, as were sporting events.
SELLERS: Many of the normal activities of childhood and adolescence are, and rightly so, curtailed. I mean, the precautions were important. But how we get out of that is with vaccination, and it remains to be seen how we can help children recover from this, because what they’ve been missing is part of their social development. The other (impact) is academics. And I think, proportionally, the kids who are having a harder time in school have fallen even further behind. Children will need a lot of help to catch up so they can get the education they need for today’s world. So those problems will be there.
Q: Why is so much effort now being made to get the vaccine to children?
SELLERS: People say to me: Well, what is the risk of COVID in children? Because they don’t get that sick, or not that much super sick, and that’s true. The risk of hospitalization or death with COVID in children may be less than in adults. But there are still 600 families in America who have an empty seat at the dinner table because of COVID, after losing a child. And it is estimated that about 140,000 children have lost an adult caregiver because of COVID.
By immunizing children, we also protect adults. We protect the parents and we protect the grandparents who are most vulnerable because then children don’t share it, take it home and give it to grandma and grandpa. You know, for so many kids, a very important person in their lives is gone now. So to protect children, we need to immunize adults. And to protect adults, we need to immunize those kids.
Question: What I hear anecdotally from people in my own circle is that the impact of the disabilities is particularly strong for older children, as social activities are so important in their lives and perhaps the very young children are not so affected. Can you please comment?
SELLERS: You know, the impact on kids won’t be the same from kid to kid because some kids are more resilient. They have more family support. They have parents and grandparents and siblings who help them. Other children were already in stressful living situations pre-COVID. And unfortunately, this creates even more stress for them. So the kids who start life at second or third base are likely to make home plate. But when you start life at first base, it’s a long way. And so I think one of our obligations as a community going forward will be to find out what we can do to help those kids catch up. But the very first step is definitely to get everyone immunized and then focus on helping the kids coming out of the pandemic so they can have the life we wanted for them.
Q: In your opinion, as a pediatrician working closely with parents, are the schools adequately staffed with counselors and nurses who can help address the emotional impacts children have experienced during the pandemic?
SELLERS: Unfortunately, we have not had enough funding and staffing for the mental health of everyone, especially children, pre-COVID. So I think it will be even more to get out of COVID. Yes, that really should be a focus, for government funding, for emphasis by our school boards and for the parents. The schools must have that support for children.
Q: With the approval of the vaccines for children aged 5 to 11, the children under the age of 5 are still not eligible. Are you projecting a timeline to get these very young children vaccinated?
SELLERS: I think the CDC and the FDA have been looking at the data very carefully and slowly lowering the age at which we give the vaccines to not only make sure they’re effective, but also make sure they’re safe. And I can see that the vaccine will eventually be in its infancy. But it may take a while. It’s easier to find adults willing to volunteer for studies than it is to find parents willing to volunteer to help their children. I think it’s very appropriate to be careful and careful, follow the science and make sure we have good data before we lower the age. The No. 1 way to protect young children under the age of five is to have their siblings and their parents and grandparents all vaccinated. And that’s really how we’re going to protect the little ones.
Q: Several unvaccinated individuals have told me that they are holding off on the injections because they feel the government has rushed development of the vaccines that are now being offered. Can you please comment?
SELLERS: Well, I don’t think it was rushed. Our government was really behind this effort, and governments around the world were behind it. It’s amazing what you can do when you spend billions of dollars and the best minds in science on projects. And so it was a remarkable success. And I think we really have to give the former government credit for that. That’s something they did well. And we must give credit to these great scientists. They really are heroes. And the fact that we have provided the vaccines to hundreds of millions of people and we have not seen any unwanted effects or unexpected effects. two months. I had my first vaccination around Christmas last year. So I think you have to look the other way, and the risk with COVID is real. COVID kills people and it puts people in ICU and some people have COVID for a long time, and that’s a real risk. The other risk is the risk to our lives and closing things and the consequences for our school children. So I think anyone who honestly looks at the risks versus the benefits, vaccination is head and shoulders above the unvaccinated.
Q: Do you foresee a time when the pandemic will end?
SELLERS: I think there’s a good chance this will go away like other pandemics, and then we won’t have to vaccinate or worry about it. But there’s also a good chance it could become an endemic problem that lingers in the background and rises periodically, just like the flu, and so we may end up with an annual COVID booster, just like getting the annual flu shot . But we’ll see. And the other good thing about this is all the work that’s being done, looking at prevention, looking at how it’s spread, looking at developing medical therapies, introducing new things that we haven’t had before. And I think a lot of this – the vaccine technology, drug technology, and just a lot of the science of epidemiology – is really improving with all the effort put into COVID. And hopefully they will help us with other diseases and other infectious diseases.