With school upon us, Michigan parents say they are cutting through misinformation on social media to make choices based on science. Here are their experiences vaccinating their children.
SOUTH LYON, Mich.—As many children and teenagers begin school this week, parents are face to face with a decision: Whether to vaccinate their eligible children and teenagers, ages 12 to 15.
A practicing family physician in South Lyon, Dr. Srikar Reddy made up his mind immediately.
“My 13-year-old was vaccinated as soon as it became available,” said Reddy, the president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians.
Reddy’s son, now beginning eighth grade, contracted COVID-19 in late December. But Reddy still wanted him to get the vaccine, though he wasn’t necessarily worried about any serious effects from reinfection.
His son’s vaccination means that if he were reinfected, it’s all the less likely that he’d spread the virus to loved ones and classmates as part of a domino effect.
That domino effect is what medical experts and many concerned parents across the state fear as schools reopen. Yes, they’re concerned about their children’s health, but they also fret if gatherings in schools—hotspots of social interaction—will spill over to spikes in the community, where high-risk members of the population are.
Domino effects could also shut down schools or send hordes of students home to quarantine, as has happened across the country, reverting localities to in-person learning.
Vaccines mitigate those risks. Reddy said they’re also the best way to get schools back to operating normally.
“That’s the goal is to get as many vaccinated so that we can prevent emerging variants, slow the spread of the current Delta variant, which is highly contagious, and then dial back on everything,” Reddy said.
“Everything” includes social distancing and mask mandates.
Reddy admitted that no one wants masks and that in crafting its recommendation for universal masking in Michigan schools, the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians understood that masks get in the way of necessary communication and social cues at school. But the best way to get rid of masks and not risk a mass outbreak is to have children vaccinated, he said.
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Trusting the Science
Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, a mother of two kids ages 12 and 14, is a public health official in Washtenaw County.
“I’m still a parent and you worry,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “At the end of the day, there wasn’t much hesitation for me wanting to get them vaccinated.”
Her decision to vaccinate her kids came down to trusting the science, said Ringler-Cerniglia, who works for the county’s health department as a communications and health promotion administrator.
“I’ve certainly seen the illness and the devastation that this virus has caused and of course wanted to protect my kids from that and give them as much normalcy as we can have,” Ringler-Cerniglia said.
Because of her position on the front lines of the health response, she monitored vaccination responses in Washtenaw County and watched very closely for negative outcomes—with an active stake in the findings before deciding whether her children would be vaccinated.
Her conclusion: The vaccine is safe and effective for adults and children.
She didn’t feel torn because of vaccine misinformation or anecdotal horror stories, she said, since she saw firsthand that the benefits far outweighed any risk.
“I was able to look very closely at the information in terms of the thousands of people being vaccinated and what was or wasn’t happening in terms of any serious consequences from the vaccine,” Ringler-Cerniglia. “I was able to assure myself that it was being appropriately tested and monitored, and it was safe and effective.”
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Spreading the Good News
Other parents regularly approach Reddy and Ringler-Cerniglia—as the friendly, neighborhood health experts—with questions about the vaccine.
The most common question, both said, was whether the vaccine had been fully tested and proven, since it was rapidly produced.
The answer: The government removed bureaucratic barriers to get the vaccine to people as quickly as possible, so grant funding and necessary signatures were doled out immediately as opposed to on a waiting period. The vaccine followed the same rigorous testing procedures, including clinical trials and data analysis, as it would have normally before it was granted emergency use authorization, a classification which applies when there’s a major threat with no existing remedies. Simply, the COVID-19 vaccine went through all the normal stages, just in a more timely manner.
Reddy, the family physician, said when the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency use authorization to the vaccine for younger age groups, his 10-year-old will be first in line.
The Pfizer vaccine is now fully approved for those 16 and up.
Conversations about vaccine safety and approval are welcome, experts say, as they can better address misinformation and false narratives that are spread online when speaking directly with people.
“We as people sometimes take that anecdotal, human-connection information more seriously than the numbers of the millions of people who have been safely vaccinated,” Ringler-Cerniglia said.
Washtenaw County wants more of those conversations to take place. That’s why it’s recruiting vaccine ambassadors to spread accurate vaccine information to their communities and answer questions for those who aren’t yet sure.
Reddy said that’s what it’s going to take to have schools back to normal: a team effort toward the game plan of more vaccines.
“When you’re deciding on one play, everybody participates in that one play,” Reddy said. “It’s not like the running back runs its own play.”
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