Chicago’s under-5 set waited a long time for a COVID vaccine. Why is uptake so low?

Only one in 20 eligible kids under 5 in Illinois have received a first dose. That leaves pediatricians and child care providers trying to troubleshoot.

Kids health and COVID vaccinations
Rubi Galindo is not planning to get her three-year-old twins vaccinated against COVID-19. "I don’t think they’ll be…safer," said the Chicago mother. Lisa Philip for WBEZ
Kids health and COVID vaccinations
Rubi Galindo is not planning to get her three-year-old twins vaccinated against COVID-19. "I don’t think they’ll be…safer," said the Chicago mother. Lisa Philip for WBEZ

Chicago’s under-5 set waited a long time for a COVID vaccine. Why is uptake so low?

Only one in 20 eligible kids under 5 in Illinois have received a first dose. That leaves pediatricians and child care providers trying to troubleshoot.

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It’s noon at the Esperanza Health Center in Little Village. Babbles echo around the waiting room as a handful of toddlers bounce nearly out of their parents’ laps.

Anayeli Tellez’s son is the exception. The 4-year-old is sitting remarkably still for his age.

“He has an infection in his ear,” said Tellez, adding she wanted a doctor to check on it.

Tellez’s son has not been vaccinated against COVID-19 even though he became eligible two months ago. That’s when, after a long delay, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for 6-month- to 4-year-olds. Children 5 to 11 have been eligible for nearly eight months, and adults for nearly a year and a half.

Since June, about one in 20 Illinois children — and one in 10 Chicago children under five — has gotten at least one dose. That lags far behind the uptake of the vaccine among 5- to 11-year-olds.

A breakdown of Chicago vaccination rates by race reveals even lower numbers. Just 2% of Black Chicagoans and 3% of Latinx Chicagoans under 5 have gotten one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared to 18% of white Chicagoans in the same age group. As pediatricians and child care center providers work to understand why, they are confronting parent skepticism about vaccine safety and barriers to access.

Kids health and COVID-19 vaccination
Anayeli Tellez and her 4-year-old son visit the Esperanza Health Center in Little Village on Aug. 4. Tellez hesitated to get her son vaccinated until his pediatrician convinced her to make an appointment. Lisa Philip for WBEZ

Tellez hesitated to get her son vaccinated because she worried it would endanger his health. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation national survey, more than 80% of parents are concerned about serious side effects and the long-term impact of the COVID-19 vaccine for their young children.

“I wasn’t thinking about the vaccine for him,” Tellez said. “But his platelets are very low, so the doctor…had recommend [sic] to get the vaccine for him, because an infection could be bad.”

Hearing from a doctor was enough to convince Tellez. Her son has an appointment to get the vaccine later this month, back at the Little Village Esperanza clinic.

But, even with fall approaching and parents weighing preschool and daycare options, the risks of contracting COVID-19 aren’t persuading everyone. More than 40% of parents surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation from across the country said they will “definitely not” vaccinate their kids under 5.

Preschools in Illinois require several immunizations, including those for measles, chickenpox and polio. Like Chicago Public Schools and other large school districts in the state, however, publicly funded preschool programs do not require the COVID-19 vaccine.

“[The vaccine is] offered at each visit, but even then, it takes some convincing and it hasn’t been very successful,” said Jasmine Saavedra, a pediatrician with Esperanza Health. “I would say the majority of parents are denying it.”

Parents have told Saavedra they worry about the safety of the vaccine for such small children, even though it is a fraction of the dose given to adults. Or, they don’t want their kids to get the COVID vaccine along with all of the other required vaccinations.

“And getting them back in has been a struggle,” she said.

Parents who are open to getting their young kids vaccinated face a few obstacles adults and school-aged kids do not. Not all pediatricians are offering the COVID vaccine for kids under 5, and Illinois law bars pharmacies without health care clinics, like many Walgreens and CVS stores, from vaccinating children under 3.

“If you’re a parent who has a day job, you’re talking about taking your kids potentially out of daycare or kindergarten to go to a pediatrician or some vaccine site…during your work day, to get vaccinated,” said Scott Thorp of the Chicagoland Vaccine Partnership. “And that’s challenging for a lot of people.”

Thorp, whose organization advocates for equitable vaccine access, said the task is especially hard for parents who live in neighborhoods with fewer vaccine sites, like Chicago’s Far South Side. This can make for long travel times, especially if taking public transportation with small children in tow. And, families need to make this journey more than once. For children under 5, the Pfizer vaccine is spread out over three doses, with three weeks between the first two, and eight weeks between the second and third. The Moderna vaccine is administered in two doses, four weeks apart.

COVID-19 vaccination
Christine Allegretti administers a COVID-19 vaccine dose to Ariana Riley at CPS’ Michele Clark High School during a clinic in August 2021. Children under 5 were not eligible for COVID vaccinations until earlier this summer. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

To confront these logistical hurdles, organizations like the Carole Robertson Center for Learning are taking the vaccine to kids and their parents. The group held a vaccine clinic at its early childhood education center in Little Village this month. Leading up to the event, staff members touted the benefits of the vaccine in newsletters and during in-person interactions with families.

“We have been meeting with parents during pickup and dropoff,” said Sangeeta Solshe, the group’s senior health manager. “We have set up tables for sign-up, providing any kind of information they need, answering their questions, any concerns they have.”

Solshe’s colleague, Meg Helder, said childcare providers are trusted messengers crucial to getting parents on board with the vaccine. Helder, a director for monitoring and support at Carole Robertson, said some of the families she serves do not have pediatricians or regular providers.

“Having [the vaccine] available at the center at a location that the child is comfortable going to feels a lot more approachable than in the back of a Walgreens or CVS, where you see strange faces,” Helder said. “So that’s another sort of barrier we’re hoping to help families with.”

Four in 10 Black parents who responded to the Kaiser Family Foundation national survey were concerned they might need to take time off from work to get their children vaccinated, or to care for youngsters if they experience side effects. Among Latino parents, 45% worried they wouldn’t be able to get their children vaccinated at a place they trust.

Even without these barriers, Solshe said, many parents she spoke with did not want their kids to get vaccinated — yet.

“They want to wait and watch and see others get it and then wait for some time and then see how things go before they get their kids vaccinated,” she said.

Nearly a third of parents of kids under 5 surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation felt this way.

“So I think time…might help,” said Saavedra, the pediatrician with Esperanza Health.

During this “wait and see” period, she said, pediatricians should be taking every opportunity to talk with parents about the risks of not vaccinating their kids, and about the safety of the vaccine.

“People find anything on Google these days,” Saavedra said. “So they’ve read the ‘He said, she said,’ ‘This happened to this person after they got the vaccine.’ ”

She said doctors need to debunk the myths parents have heard. The Kaiser Family Foundation survey indicated more than 70% of parents had not yet spoken with a pediatrician about the vaccine. According to the CDC, side effects of the vaccines for kids under 5 tend to be mild, like sleepiness and pain at the vaccination site, and these symptoms usually clear up quickly.

Rubi Galindo hadn’t yet talked to her children’s doctor about the vaccine. While wrangling her 3-year-old twins in the waiting room of the Little Village Esperanza clinic, she said about getting her kids vaccinated, “I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t think they’ll be…safer.”

She said could take other precautions to prevent her kids from contracting COVID.

But, when asked if she might get her kids vaccinated in the future, Galindo said, “Mhmmmm, maybe.”

Lisa Philip is an independent journalist based in Oak Park. Follow her @laphilip.