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Guest Column
I’m a pediatrician and my own kids are getting COVID vaccinations pronto | Column
Almost 10 percent of children who had COVID-19 may experience prolonged symptoms.
Dr. Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti with her family.
Dr. Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti with her family. [ Provided ]
Published Nov. 3

Dear fellow parents: Please get your kids vaccinated. I’m doing so as soon as I can.

As a pediatrician, I’ve seen many children and families suffer from COVID-19 over the last 20 months. The parents of my patients tell me about the fevers, the body aches, the headaches, the loss of smell that has lasted for months. With the approval this week of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11, we can ease a great deal of that heartache.

Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti
Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti [ Provided ]

COVID-19 has not only harmed adults. Across the U.S., about 6 million COVID-19 cases — roughly 1 in every 6 — has been a child. And with the emergence of the more contagious delta variant over the last several months, more and more children have become infected.

COVID-19 is unpredictable. Some children have it and never know; symptoms can be nonexistent, mild, serious or even deadly. But even a mild or asymptomatic infection can force a child into quarantine, a disruption to the predictable, consistent routine that helps children thrive. With moderate illness, they may need to be hospitalized, which can be very traumatic.

Almost 10 percent of children who had COVID-19 may experience prolonged symptoms: trouble concentrating, fatigue, headache, muscle and joint pain, and insomnia. A recent report showed that 1 out of every 3 children admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 ends up in the intensive care unit and may need life support. Sadly, over 700 children have now died of COVID-19 in the United States, more than usually die of influenza in an average year.

And COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on children of color. Black and Hispanic children represent more than half of the child hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19; meanwhile, recent research found that 140,000 American children have lost a parent to COVID-19, many of them racial and ethnic minorities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had profound effects on the mental health of children as well. I’ve seen it in my own patients, like the bubbly little girl whom I’ve been taking care of for four years. This child has traditionally been so upbeat that I had a sticky note to remind myself: “She’s always happy!”

But when I last saw her a few months ago, she was gripped by anxiety and thoughts of suicide; the pandemic had turned her world upside down. She never had COVID1-9 herself, but the pandemic had cut off from her own life support: school, friends, activities. She was not the only one. In my 15 years as a pediatrician, I have never seen so many young girls cutting their wrists as a suicidal gesture as I have this year.

But there is hope now. COVID-19 finally joins the list of other vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles, tetanus, and polio. There don’t have to be another 700 childhood deaths next year. With the protection of the vaccine on board, our children can now be part of the fight, part of the victory.

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Over the last year my kids have watched me on countless virtual town halls sharing stories about the hardships my patients and their families face. They have heard their father, a pulmonologist and intensive care doctor, come home day after day talking about the different ways he and his team try to save the lives of people suffering from COVID-19.

My children are 7 and 9 years old, and I see the vaccine as a chance to give them agency — to empower them in this fight against COVID-19. And the good news is that we have a safe and effective way to do it. As soon as it’s available, I will get them vaccinated.

Please join me.

Gabriela M. Maradiaga Panayotti is a pediatrician at Duke Health in Durham, North Carolina and the mother of two young children.