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Only 3% of Pima County kids under 5 vaccinated vs. COVID a month after shots start

Only 3 percent of children under five years old in Pima County have received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine, roughly a month after the shots became available to younger kids.

Parents are not flocking to get their young children the vaccinations, which received FDA approval last month, even as a highly contagious variant of the virus is spreading through the country, data from the Pima County Health Department indicates.

While not ideal, the vaccination rate for the age group, which makes up about 6 percent of county residents, is not a shock, said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Health Department.

“I'm actually not surprised; the Kaiser Family Foundation had done an early report, an early analysis, and they believed that there would be like 15-17 percent (initial) uptake,” she told the Tucson Sentinel. “So I would like to see that number higher, but I think a few things are interfering with it.”

Some things contributing to the low vaccination rate are the time of year, that it was only recently approved for young children, and that providers may not have the vaccine available yet, Cullen said. She expects the group’s vaccination rate will reach the goal of around 60 percent, despite the slow start.

Dr. Jeff Couchman of Mesquite Pediatrics in Tucson said his clinic’s vaccine uptake for children under five is around 10-15 percent.

“The clinic held a drive through vaccination event in late June and about 120 children under five received their first shot there,” he said.

Parents with young children have had similar concerns to those of others throughout the pandemic, Couchman said, such as possible side effects from the vaccine. Others are not concerned about the virus and have given up on preventing it, he said.

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“So I think there's a perception that it's not a serious disease. There's definitely that presumption in kids, and the problem with that is, for some people, it really is a serious disease,” Couchman said. Even children without pre-existing conditions are not immune from being hospitalized by the virus or ending up with long haul symptoms, he said.

“The vaccines are really good at preventing serious cases of COVID, serious complications,” Couchman said. “Even though they're not 100% reliable at preventing people from getting COVID at all.”

Vaccinating young children also protects the larger community, such as their parents, grandparents and teachers, he said. Alissa Noel, a local real estate agent, got her 2.5-year-old daughter vaccinated last week with those things in mind. Noel said she and her partner became more lenient as COVID restrictions lessened and with their daughter taking daily trips to the park they decided to get her immunized.

“Obviously my partner and I are both vaccinated, and it just seemed like the safe and responsible thing to do for everyone involved,” she said.

BA.5’s Rise

COVID-19 cases have increased as the extremely contagious COVID-19 subvariant, BA.5, is becoming more prevalent. The daily average of new cases in the United States is more than 122,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC currently lists Pima County as “low” for community transmission with more than 179 cases per 100,000 people. However, the county’s positivity rate is over 20 percent, Cullen said on Monday, which indicates many cases going unreported.

“And all of us know somebody who has COVID I think, everybody I know knows somebody that has COVID,” she said. “Because the BA.5 variant is so transmissible and we're just seeing a much higher number of people getting the disease.”

As the highly-contagious variant spreads, places like Pima County are well behind the expected vaccine uptake for young children. An April survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health nonprofit, found that 18 percent of parents would vaccinate their child under five “right away,” while 38% would "wait and see."

It’s Cullen’s hope that more young kids will join the ranks of vaccinated children like Noel’s daughter. She hopes about 60 percent of the county’s children under five will be vaccinated in the next eight to 12 weeks. Roughly 57 percent of children 5-9 years old have received a dose of the vaccine.

“The bottom line is we urge people to get the vaccine,” Cullen said. “We understand their reasons for people not getting it yet, but we would encourage them to seek out a vaccine for their six months up to five-year-olds.”

Information on where to get vaccinated in Pima County, including those under five years old, is available here.

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Pima County

Vaccines have been available for Pima County's youngest residents for a month, but only about 3% of the age group have been vaccinated. Mesquite Pediatrics has had a bit more success inoculating its young patients with the help of vaccine drive thrus, similar to last year's vaccine drive for older children pictured above.