Now that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for kids as young as 12, there’s been more focus in Yakima County on getting young people vaccinated.

At Yakima Pediatrics, longtime pediatrician Dr. Roy Simms said doctors are having one-on-one conversations with families about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine, just as they do for vaccines against polio and measles. They talk with both parents and kids to answer questions.

Vaccine trials are currently underway on children 11 and younger, and experts are hopeful the vaccine will be available to all school-age children before school starts in the fall.

Some questions and answers:

What common concerns are you hearing from families? How are you responding?

Simms said the concern that he hears most is the short time for vaccine development and testing. He said he understands those concerns, and tries to allay them by explaining how the vaccine was developed and how it works.

“This technology for vaccine development has been around for well over 20 years. People have been working on this technology to address some cancers and will continue to do so, so it’s not new,” he said.

The vaccine went through rigorous testing for children, following regular protocols, he said. In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, messenger RNA teaches cells to make a virus protein that triggers an immune response.

“Our immune system recognizes it and fights it,” he said. “The messenger RNA is destroyed and the protein is destroyed and we remember that protein and recognize it and fight it when it enters our system.”

He said he always assures people there’s no live virus in the vaccine.

He said parents can access the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for the latest information about side effects. There was new information last week about rare cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, for example. Such information helps health care providers monitor what’s happening and respond if needed.

“It doesn’t look like it would be any greater percentage of kids than what would be background,” he said. “It’s a transparent system. People are very diligent in their monitoring. These are high-level experts who are sitting down every week and looking at that information. They haven’t decided to do anything (related to myocarditis) because there isn’t any information that’s different than the baseline. But it’s information and people ought to have information.”

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Should children get the vaccine?

Simms said the vaccine is the best tool available against COVID-19.

“Some of the things that are happening with this virus are unique,” he said. “Things like the way it attacks our blood vessels and the increased level of clotting in people. I just wouldn’t want a child to get the virus if I could avoid it.

“Maybe long term most kids will do fine. But we don’t know that either, and I’m more confident in the vaccine than I am in telling people, ‘Oh don’t worry about it. Just let your kid get it.’”

About 300 children nationwide have died of COVID since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children represented 20% of new cases for the week of May 13-20 nationwide. While severe illness is rare in children, there have been six cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, which is associated with COVID-19, in Yakima County, according to the state Department of Health.

During conversations with parents, Simms says he focuses on common ground: “We’re here for the same reason, the health of your child. I have a concern, you have a concern, how can we get to a resolution of that? Which in this case is: How can we prevent your child from getting COVID-19? The only tool I’ve got is a vaccine.”

He said masks and staying at home are other options, but they have drawbacks, too.

Do families with unvaccinated children need to take precautions?

“I would. I don’t want us to become cavalier about little kids. I think that’s disrespectful to young children, and I think that’s possibly placing them at risk,” he said. “We think we know they don’t get as sick as the older kids do, or as adults do. That’s a statistical fact, but that’s not the way I operate as a physician. I don’t want them to expose their young children.”

Simms said that in his experience, little children don’t seem to mind wearing masks, and masks do offer some protection. Outdoor activities are low-risk for COVID transmission and that’s been well-studied.

“And I think that when you know the people you’re around have been immunized, that’s a very safe thing. If a young child’s grandparents want to visit and they’ve been immunized, I’d say go for it,” he said.

“If you are going to take your child to a sporting event inside a gym where there’s a crowd of people or you want to take your child into a store where people are walking around without masks on or to a restaurant, that would seem to me to be taking a little bit more risk. “