It’s two years into the pandemic and babies and toddlers still aren’t eligible for COVID vaccination — and many caregivers are feeling incredibly frustrated, hopeless, and defeated about it.
BuzzFeed News asked readers to tell us how they feel about the vaccine delay and received over 1,000 responses from parents, teachers, and other people who interact with and take care of children. While we may be only weeks away from a safe and effective vaccine for kids under 5, many people have felt lost and isolated in the process.
“The world has abandoned us,” said Anne, mom of a 2-year-old. “We feel like we are screaming into the void,” said Lauren, mother to an 11-month-old. “I feel like the kid who's excited to hold a bunch of balloons and then watches them pop one by one because of circumstances beyond their control,” said Sabrina, mom of a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old.
The FDA was originally expected to authorize the Pfizer COVID vaccine for children 6 months to 4 years old in February, but plans abruptly changed when the government agency indefinitely postponed a meeting, leaving anxious caregivers in the dark.
“Maybe if we had been told that it could be a long, tiring course, if we had been warned that we would likely see many surges and lulls, maybe then people would be a little more resilient and not so fatigued,” said Carrie Knight, mom of three in Virginia, including a 1-year-old. “We were ‘all in it together’ in March 2020. But March 2022? It feels like there's a chasm between us now.”
Clinical trials suggested that two doses of a 3-microgram vaccine, which is one-third the adult dose, was safe and effective for babies ages 6 months to one year. However, in kids ages 2 to 4, that dosage of the vaccine didn’t offer enough protection, although it was shown to be safe.
At the moment, Pfizer is reviewing the efficacy of a third dose of the vaccine, which is given two months after the second dose. Adding a third shot may offer a higher degree of protection and “maximize the risk-benefit profile,” a spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
The company said this data should be ready by early April, which could mean vaccines will be available for kids under 5 around that time. (The Pfizer vaccine is already available for kids ages 5 and up.)
This week Moderna released its data on vaccines for children under 6 and expects to ask the FDA for authorization “in the coming weeks,” the company said. The vaccine, which is 25 micrograms or a quarter of the adult dose, was 43.7% effective against coronavirus infection primarily caused by the Omicron variant in kids 6 months to 2 years old and 37.5% effective in those 2 to 5 years old. (The Moderna vaccine is currently only available for adults and is about 94% effective in those who get two doses.)
Many people acknowledge that the delay means there’s a better chance the shots will actually protect young children — most of whom can’t wear masks because they aren’t recommended for kids under 2 — but caregivers also feel forced to depend on others for their child’s safety, especially those with immunocompromised children.
“I keep dreaming that it does happen: that [vaccine] approval comes, that my child is vaccinated,” said Kelly, 36, mother to a 1-year-old in Colorado who prefers her last name to stay private. “I always wake up so desperate. I cry a lot during showers.”
News of the Pfizer delay came as the deadly Omicron surge was still killing about 2,400 people a day (it’s now under 1,000 per day). More recently, states, schools, and daycares have announced they are no longer requiring people to wear masks indoors.
COVID can be a serious risk to children
There’s a common misperception that COVID isn’t that serious for kids, usually because adults are often much more likely to get sick, be hospitalized, and die from the disease, particularly if they aren’t vaccinated. But that doesn’t mean coronavirus infections are no big deal for children.
A CDC report published March 15 found that children ages 0 to 4 were hospitalized with COVID at a rate five times higher during the Omicron surge compared with that of the Delta variant last year. As of March 24, 418 children under 5 have died of COVID. About 20% of all deaths in children under 18 occurred during Omicron's dominance.
The caregivers we talked to are also concerned about the unknown long-term consequences of infection, including long COVID; MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children), a rare condition that triggers inflammation in different body parts such as the heart, kidneys, brain, or eyes; and diabetes. (Coronavirus infections seem to raise children’s risk of the autoimmune condition, Type 1 diabetes, and possibly Type 2 diabetes as well.)
“I don't think it's fair to leave her defenseless against a virus while everyone else gets to have the option to be vaccinated against it,” said Sharon Cook, a 35-year-old mom of a 3-year-old in Maryland. “I'm not gambling with my child's health just because some people think children are going to have an easier time with COVID. It's nobody's right to roll the dice on my child's health.”
As caregivers wait for the FDA to review Pfizer and Moderna’s data, they’re especially vigilant of a seemingly more contagious subvariant of Omicron, called BA.2, that’s sending coronavirus case trends in the wrong direction in Western Europe. It’s also spreading steadily in the US, making up about 35% of all COVID cases as of the week ending March 19.
While feelings are mixed, the delay is a major source of stress for many caregivers who feel the government’s push to prepandemic normalcy isn’t considering the approximately 18 million children who fall in this age group.
The caregivers of immunocompromised kids
People of all ages with weakened immune systems are more likely to be hospitalized, need intensive care, require a ventilator, and/or die from COVID, which is why caregivers of immunocompromised babies and toddlers feel even more overlooked and isolated than those who take care of healthy kids.
Lindsay King, who has a 4-year-old daughter, said she was “elated” when the FDA set a review date for the Pfizer COVID vaccine for kids under 5, but the postponement “felt like the rug was pulled out from under me,” she told us. “We special needs parents have been waiting for this a really, really long time.”
King’s daughter was diagnosed with autism, “which makes her especially prone to infection due to decreased impulse control and safety awareness,” she said. Her daughter also has complex Chiari malformation — a condition that causes the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for balance and other motor functions, to push into the spinal cord — and a tethered spine, which causes chronic constipation and frequent falls.
The 36-year-old from Texas said her daughter leaves the house only for doctor appointments and behavioral therapy, so the delay means “many more months of worrying, sleeplessness, ongoing isolation, and emotional deprivation. “I feel scared, frustrated, and frankly, stuck,” King said.
Some caregivers have had to make the difficult decision to keep their immunocompromised kids from school or other interactions that are necessary for healthy development.
Rachel Hansen of Oregon said her 2-year-old has Down syndrome and a severe heart defect that required two open-heart surgeries that have kept her isolated since birth.
“Everything in my life is governed by how much it puts my toddler at risk of being around others and potentially getting sick,” Hansen, 26, said. “Once she can be vaccinated, it will allow us to start living life, whereas right now we are stuck in a weird waiting period.”
In the meantime, Hansen said she will avoid family and continue Zoom playdates and virtual therapy — a lack of social interaction that has already caused a developmental delay in her daughter’s ability to interact with others her age, she said.
For other caregivers of immunocompromised children, childcare has been one of the biggest challenges, aside from dodging COVID.
Claire has a 1-year-old with cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that causes excess mucus buildup in the lungs and digestive tract. She told us her son caught a cold at the end of 2021 that took her and her husband away from work often, and stripped her of their nanny who, understandably, didn’t want to care for a sick child.
“We had to up his chest physical therapy from 20 minutes, twice a day, to four to fives times per day,” which for a toddler “was like wrestling an alligator,” she said. “Not to mention, my poor baby was miserable and having trouble breathing. I’m terrified of him catching COVID for fear that his little lungs couldn’t handle it.”
For Claire, a COVID vaccine means she would feel free from constant worry, be able to take her son to see extended family for the first time, and send her son to daycare, which is less expensive than the nanny she hired, allowing her baby to socialize more with other kids his age.
“I really wish we could put politics aside and work together to beat COVID,” Claire said. “The health and safety of my son and so many others depend on it.”
People who work with kids are struggling too
Abby, a children’s librarian in Wisconsin who asked that her last name be kept private, said she does seven or more storytimes a week for kids under 5 at a library with no mask mandate. Within that time, she’ll see about 100 kids and their caregivers. “This means myself and my staff are working with tons of unvaccinated kids weekly, singing and reading to them in an enclosed space,” Abby said.
“At a certain point, it just feels like we're saying that as a society, we're cool with sacrificing vulnerable kids (and grownups with immune system deficiencies and disorders) for the sake of saying we're winning the fight against COVID like it's some kind of contest,” Abby, 38, told us. “We've already lost. We've lost so many lives and for many others, the bigger loss is their empathy and humanity.”
Many teachers feel the same. JT Handley, a 23-year-old preschool teacher in Missouri, said they are “stressed and anxious, both for the health and safety of my students and for my current financial situation.”
Earlier in the year, Handley tested positive for COVID with a mild case and had to miss work for almost an entire pay period (staff at their school has to take a minimum of five days off with no pay if in direct contact with an infected child).
“I’m supposed to average 70 hours per pay period,” said Handley. “I earned seven for the period I had COVID.”
Some people, like J. Lauren Armshaw, 31, a professional nanny in Louisiana, have had to cut ties with people in their personal lives to protect their professional ones.
Armshaw said she stopped talking to some people who don’t share her views on COVID vaccines, in part to protect those she nannies for. “The toddlers and babies in my care are very important to me and I can’t imagine one of them getting COVID and getting very ill,” she said. “It’s scary living in a world where we just don’t know and people don’t care.”
The caregivers who already had COVID
For the families lucky enough to have avoided COVID so far, vaccines offer an extra layer of protection against infection, although there’s no guarantee of that. But for many others who have already tested positive, the shots are what they consider their only chance at preventing another traumatic COVID experience.
Keith Lieder, 37, of Michigan, contracted COVID in April 2020. Nearly two months later, Lieder lost 30 pounds after weeks of debilitating symptoms that kept him isolated from his two daughters, then 3 years and 6 months old, who were too young to be tested at the time. For two years now, Lieder has had long COVID, experiencing numbness on the right side of his body, sore throat, headaches, nerve pain, and dizziness, to name a few symptoms.
“It has been a horrible, horrible struggle mentally and physically. I used to be in great shape with no health problems and now every day is a struggle. It breaks my heart to even think about my children or anyone’s children having to deal with even a fraction of what I and my family have had to go through,” said Lieder, adding that he feels helpless, anxious, and frustrated over the foggy timeline for COVID vaccination for his daughters.
“And for that reason, we will be getting our children vaccinated as soon as we know it is safe to do so.”
Some caregivers remain hesitant
Whether triggered by the delay or not, some caregivers remain hesitant to vaccinate their kids while others are certain they won’t.
“We plan on vaccinating our baby, though we’d prefer not to be in the ‘first wave’ when emergency use is approved,” said Kim V., 34, mother to a 7-month-old in Ohio. “Vaccinating my child feels different than making the choice to get an emergency use vaccine for myself.”
Others are on the fence. “Half of me says yes because he doesn't know a world without COVID and protocols. The other half of me says no because he is so young and if he had an adverse reaction it would kill me,” said Ali Morin, 28, mom to a 2-year-old.
Meanwhile, many caregivers say they are not anti-vaccine, but anti–COVID vaccine, sharing that they feel the coronavirus shots were developed too quickly or that they feel the risks for children are relatively low.
Dr. Lauren Gambill, a pediatric hospitalist at the University of Texas’s Dell Children’s Medical Center and professor at the Dell Medical School, said she worries the delay is “giving people pause,” but that “this is truly what transparency and science looks like.”
“It’s disappointing as a pediatrician and parent of two kids that fall in this age range, but I think that the delay to me is evidence of the rigor and safety of the overall process,” Gambill said. “I think everyone has the right to be frustrated, but this reassures me that when the vaccine is available it will, without a doubt, work and be safe.”