Published June 29th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Winter pushed cotton candy-like wisps of light brown hair away from his face and flashed a grin. The 2-year-old then reached for his mom, Lisa-Marie Sauciuc.
Sauciuc smiled and explained he was a little fussy from a long night with friends, something he didn’t get to experience until she got him vaccinated on June 24.
“I mean, he’s never set foot in the store, like at all,” she said. “Last night was the first time we’ve ever done that since he (was) born.”
On June 17, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use of Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children 6 months through 5 years of age. Three days after the FDA’s announcement, Sauciuc jumped at the chance to schedule her son’s pediatric COVID-19 vaccine.
She explained that Winter’s life has been spent in complete isolation, having been born one week before the pandemic hit. He has only known family.
He is her pandemic baby. Now he’s her vaccinated pandemic baby.
During the past two years, Sauciuc’s family completely readjusted schedules. As an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, she was able to teach remotely.
Her oldest two children — Cinnamon, 7, and Nicu, 9 — were switched to homeschool to stave off any possible infection in and outside of their homes. Plus, her eldest child has asthma. She admits the family was strict about their bubble.
“How can I play Russian roulette like that with my kids’ life when I don’t know (COVID’s effects) long term? How is that gonna affect their lungs or their heart?” she said.
In her mind, having all three of her children vaccinated is the Sauciuc family’s “glimmer of hope.” But it wasn’t easy to find since she was one of the earliest families to get the pediatric vaccine after the FDA’s emergency use authorization.
Sauciuc wound up driving one hour away from her home in Olathe, Kansas, to St. Joseph, Missouri.
Nationwide, only 36% of children between 5 years and 11 years old have gotten their first dose, according to most recently available data. Only 29% have received a booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Kansas City area pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert wrote in her newsletter that without additional protections for children, families and she are worried that “this fall could be an infectious s*%t show.”
Anecdotally, some parents in the Kansas City area are ready for pediatric vaccinations but have faced delays because appointments are already booked two weeks out.
“We’re not where we need to be,” said Dr. Syra Madad, infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Madad not only works in the world of infectious diseases, having tracked the pandemic since the beginning but also is the parent of a 2-year-old.
The data she cites show a troubling trend.
A CDC report found that more children were hospitalized in the recent Omicron variant surge in late December 2021. Specifically, infants and children under 5 years of age were hospitalized at five times the rate when compared with the Delta surge.
“During Omicron predominance, 63% of hospitalized infants and children had no underlying medical conditions; infants aged (younger than) 6 months accounted for 44% of hospitalizations,” the report reads.
While instances of long-COVID among children are lower, the lasting effects must be treated, physicians and public health officials say. The better option, they say, is to vaccinate kids before they get infected.
Dr. Angie Linz, a pediatrician at Pediatric Associates-Kansas City, agreed.
Working as a physician during the pandemic has been “humbling,” Linz said.
“I have seen healthy children affected by COVID-19 in a number of ways,” Linz said. “In addition to the physical effects, I have seen the impact that this virus has had on the mental health and well-being of our children and families.”
She added: “We cannot downplay the fact that many children have died from this virus.”
In the past several days, as local case numbers trend higher, her office has been receiving an increased number of calls from families interested in learning more about what’s now available. Linz also welcomes questions from vaccine skeptics.
“Conversations about vaccines are not new to pediatricians, and we are eager to discuss our recommendations with all patient families,” Linz said.
That’s good, she said, because the more information families have, the more empowered they are to make informed decisions. She also advised parents to remain vigilant and protective.
“The pandemic is still raging,” Madad said. “We need to take heed.”
This is why some families in Kansas City are hurriedly booking appointments for their kids. The Kansas City, Missouri, Department of Health is offering walk-in appointments and scheduling as available. But as of early this week, they’re booked for the next two weeks.
Walgreens: To book an appointment for your child 3 years and older click here.
CVS: Book an appointment for children 18 months and older here
Hy-Vee: Once supplies are available, families can book an appointment here.
Children’s Mercy has an easy-to-use portal to request and schedule a vaccine for their upcoming vaccine clinics.
Pediatric Associates is offering COVID-19 vaccines for children 6 months old through 5 years old at their South Overland Park location.
Samuel Rodgers Health Center will soon offer pediatric vaccines, but check in with the organization to check availability.
MARC provides comprehensive information, transportation to clinics and a host of vaccine finders for folks who need to search by ZIP or their counties. Click here to search.
It’s been less than two weeks since the FDA’s announcements, so local health clinics are still waiting to receive their vaccines.
Community health centers like Samuel Rodgers Health Center are also still waiting on their shipment.
However, local and chain pharmacies might be an option for kids 3 years old and up. Iris Green, a mother of was able to easily book an appointment for her 4-year-old daughter at a local Walgreens.
Another parent, Megan Galloway, said, “I’m still holding my breath.” Her children have appointments scheduled for two weeks from now. Until then, they keep to themselves and remain masked in public because her son is at high risk.
Each of the parents interviewed used the word “relief” to describe how they felt about vaccinating their youngest.
For Nikki DeSimone Pauls, a Kansas City social worker and parent of a 3-year-old, it’s been a bundle of emotions.
Her daughter was part of the Pfizer vaccine trials, so she was one of the first children to get immunized in February. But it turns out that Pauls wouldn’t know that until the authorization was official.
At 4:50 p.m. on Monday she got the call. Her daughter was part of the 67% who got the real deal.
“So it was … relief on Thursday, overwhelming relief on Saturday and then Monday to find out that it was done, was just amazing,” she recalled, chuckling.
But the reason behind why she joined the trials was frustration. In February, Pfizer postponed the FDA request to roll out vaccines for younger children.
At that point, her daughter was more than 2 years old.
“We were just, I mean just shattered,” Pauls said, noting that it was during the Omicron surge.
Her family wanted additional protection. They were ready.
So, she researched and found what she wanted. A COVID vaccine trial for young kids.
“We jumped on it even though it’s a double-blind with a 33% control, so that meant there was only a 67% chance that she was gonna get the real thing,” she said.
That was enough.
So, Pauls and her family drove three hours to Newton, Kansas — the closest Pfizer vaccine trial site she could find — and back to their Kansas City home.
Just for a chance. She wants to reassure families who may still be wary whether the vaccines are safe for children.
“For those who are kind of wait and see, who want to see more kiddos get vaccines (first), I say to them: ‘My daughter did that for you. And we were happy to do that,’” Pauls said.
“Now is your time … You don’t need to wait anymore.”
Among Kansas City parents who eagerly shared their stories, like the Sauciucs and others, there’s a little more room to relax.
Play dates at the park. Friends coming over, albeit still masked, a few parents said. But above all, families get to provide new experiences for pandemic babies.
“I am very thankful that we have the resources that we have access to the vaccine,” Sauciuc said,
“That we have been able to find ways to make it through this with our mental health intact, and that we’ve been able to find moments of joy.”
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.