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Local parents are split on the COVID-19 vaccine for their kids as CDC, pediatricians recommend it for those 5 and older 

Santa Maria parent Kelly White O'Neill had no hesitations when it came to getting her 11-year-old son vaccinated for COVID-19 when he became eligible—and having a child so close to the age cutoff made the wait feel even longer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 on Nov. 2, nearly six months after the 12- to 15-year-old age group was given the go-ahead in May.

While she was waiting for her son to become eligible, White O'Neill said the thought crossed her mind: Should I just say he's 12 so he can get immunized?

"I obviously didn't do that," she said. "But that's how important it was to me."

White O'Neill is the director of marketing at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mid Central Coast, and her organization is hosting child vaccination clinics for the 5 to 11 age group that's now eligible to receive the shot. An ongoing Santa Maria clinic will be hosted every Wednesday and Friday through at least January, and a one-time pop-up clinic will be in Paso Robles on Dec. 7.

click to enlarge ALL SMILES Kids in the 5 to 11 age group show off their bandaged arms after getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a Nov. 17 Sansum Clinic child vaccine event. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SANSUM CLINIC
  • Photo Courtesy Of Sansum Clinic
  • ALL SMILES Kids in the 5 to 11 age group show off their bandaged arms after getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a Nov. 17 Sansum Clinic child vaccine event.

"This first wave of families, I assume they've just been waiting for the opportunity and were eager," White O'Neill said. "I don't think that these were families that needed any convincing, they just needed a place to go where they felt comfortable and had hours that worked with their schedules."

But since then, it's been harder to get parents and their kids in the door.

"We are getting a very slow start. ... I know that parents have hesitations for all kinds of reasons, but on the other hand, they have to get their kids vaccinated for other things to just enroll them in school," White O'Neill said. "It's just a shame that this one particular vaccine has just gotten so misconstrued, and so much false information is out there."

A national poll conducted by YouGov and commissioned by ParentsTogether—a news nonprofit aimed at families—suggests a correlation between where parents get their news and their COVID-19 vaccination choices for their children. The respondents were adult American parents of children who are under 18 and enrolled in school or day care.

The findings show that 75 percent of unvaccinated parents distrust mainstream media sources and get most of their information from social media, whereas 58 percent of vaccinated parents prefer to get most of their COVID-19 information from mainstream media.

"That shows us that the disinformation that's rife on social media is having a real-world impact," said Dalia Hashad, director of online safety at ParentsTogether. "Well-meaning parents who just want the best for our kids are being led astray by lies that are allowed to proliferate on social media."

SLO and Santa Barbara counties both lag behind the state for COVID-19 vaccination rates in the 12 to 17 age group and the 18 to 49 age group, and SLO County's numbers are worse than Santa Barbara's.

As of Nov. 23, 48.6 percent of children ages 12 to 17 in SLO County are fully vaccinated, compared to 57.1 percent in Santa Barbara County and 61.3 percent statewide, according to state data. There's a similar disparity in the 18 to 49 age group: 60.7 percent are fully immunized in SLO County, 68 percent in Santa Barbara County, and 72.5 percent statewide.

But the gap closes in the older age groups: 77.4 percent of those 65 and older are vaccinated in SLO County, and a similar 78.1 percent of the same group are vaccinated statewide.

SLO County Public Health Department spokesperson Michelle Shoresman said there's not a clear explanation for why the county is lagging behind in its younger populations.

"We are aware that this county has shown more vaccine hesitancy than the state as a whole, and this is true in the teen population as well," Shoresman wrote in an email. "We work to try to provide helpful information to parents to see continuously improved uptake of COVID vaccine among youth and their parents."

In not too long, parents who want their kids in the classroom may not have a choice, as California plans to require COVID-19 shots for schoolchildren. The mandate is set to begin after the FDA gives full approval of the vaccine for younger age groups. This likely won't happen until at least next school year, but concerned parents are already speaking out.

"I believe this decision should be left to the parents, not the government to decide," Amy Manning, a Paso Robles Joint Unified School District parent said during public comment at the board of trustees' Nov. 9 board meeting. "Parents should not be forced or be coerced into making their children take this vaccine. ... I know we all want the best for our children, regardless of if we agree on certain things or not."

Manning said she recently quit her job and started her own business so that she can have the option to homeschool her kids, "if it comes to that," she said. "Which, that's what it looks like. They [my kids] don't want that, I don't want that, but it's happening if this is enforced in our wonderful schools."

In Paso Superintendent Curt Dubost's Nov. 12 community update, he wrote that the district will "err on the side of preserving and protecting individual personal and family choice to the greatest extent legally possible" once mandates come into effect.

Pediatricians are largely in support of eligible children receiving the COVID-19 vaccine: The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with the CDC recommendation that everyone eligible should get the jab.

"The research has shown that these vaccines are safe and effective at preventing COVID-19 in children of this age group," Dr. Jerold Black, a Sansum Clinic pediatrician who helped immunize more than 300 Santa Barbara County kids at a Nov. 17 vaccine clinic, said in a statement. "We are hopeful that our ability to vaccinate these younger patients gets us closer to herd immunity."

The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department plans to launch a Keep Kids Safe, Vaccinate campaign to educate parents.

"Parents have shared very valid concerns regarding side effects their children might experience and a particular concern for the rare condition, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)," Santa Barbara County Public Information Officer Jackie Ruiz wrote in a statement. "Public Health is leading their information campaign with facts and pediatricians. ... It will focus on our trusted health care providers to answer questions that parents have about their children getting vaccinated." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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