Short of breath and coughing, my 104-year-old patient with COVID-19 looked me in the eye and told me she lived through the 1918 flu and wasn’t going to let a "silly thing" like the current pandemic take her life.
She was right.
Five days and several liters of oxygen later, she walked out of the hospital with a clean bill of health. The centenarian says she might have gotten the virus from her family – several family members of all ages and generations had recently visited and many were sick with COVID-19.
She had an indomitable spirit and steely resolve – but the thing that helped her most to survive a virus that has taken over 5.2 million lives worldwide: She was fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
What would have helped even more is if her younger family members were also immunized and had not passed the disease to her in the first place.
We are entering what appears to be yet another transition period of the pandemic – cases and deaths have declined from the peak of the delta surge, but they are not zero. Meanwhile, the new omicron variant is possibly rising as a serious threat.
As a hospital provider, I still see very sick unvaccinated younger individuals and moderately sick vaccinated people who are either elderly or with compromised immune systems. Now is the time as a nation to seize our opportunity and consolidate our gains to end our continuing national COVID-19 crisis.
Stopping the spread
As of early November, the number of Americans eligible for vaccination has increased by more than 28 million: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee unanimously voted to approve the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11.
As with all things related to COVID-19 vaccinations, this recommendation has been met with much skepticism and even anger. This is unfortunate as pediatric vaccinations will be a powerful tool in ending the continued spread of the virus, especially as we approach the winter holidays. I fear that without the proper protection, these gatherings could lead to an increase in cases and unnecessary deaths.
As was the case with the 104-year-old patient, the youngest members of the family can be vectors for spreading COVID-19, even to those fully vaccinated. She was protected by her previous immunizations but even then, she was lucky to survive. Breakthrough cases of severe COVID-19 infections do happen – rarely – but still do happen, especially in the older and immunocompromised population.
Such was the case with former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Why risk the health of our grandmas, grandpas and great-grandparents who desperately want to see their grandchildren?
We have the ability to stop the spread in the first place, if we vaccinate as many people as we can, including those 5-11 years old.
Assessing the risks
I get it – anytime children are involved, we must be extremely cautious. But the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been tested thoroughly and is safe for children 5 years or older.
There were no serious side effects in the clinical trials that led to the emergency use authorization for this younger population. Even the extremely rare side effect of heart inflammation (myocarditis) was mild and resolved when treated with ibuprofen.
The risks associated with COVID-19 infection far outweigh the risks of the vaccine. The virus has become the eighth leading cause of death in 5- to 11-year-olds. And over 8,000 children in this age range have been hospitalized with COVID-19, with many developing either severe myocarditis or another inflammatory syndrome such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. The vaccine will actually protect against these more severe forms of inflammation. Although the vaccine may seem scary, it is much less scary than a child catching COVID-19.
In addition, there are evolving reports of a brand new dominant COVID-19 variant spreading. Named the omicron variant, it was detected by scientists in South Africa, where full vaccination rates for adults remain about 40%. With the smaller proportion of vaccinated individuals, the virus had more ability to spread and with each new case, a chance to mutate.
This is yet another reason to vaccinate our kids – limiting transmission, even among children, limits the possibility of more dangerous mutations here. And while we are still learning about the omicron variant, more than likely our current vaccines provide at least partial protection from serious illness.
People are still suffering from COVID-19, despite the declining number of cases. People are still dying from COVID-19. And many who have recovered are still suffering from "long-COVID” syndrome, with symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to fatigue to brain fog.
We need to prevent the spread in the first place, and the reach of our mainstay weapon just became wider by 28 million kids. Please consider vaccinating your children – to protect them, to protect yourself, to protect grandparents, and to protect the 104-year-olds of the world who will survive two pandemics and have more living to do.
Dr. Thomas K. Lew, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Omicron: COVID-19 vaccinations for kids will help top the spread