Families & the Community

How to Talk to Parents About COVID-19 Vaccines: 3 Tips From Scientists

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 19, 2021 4 min read
Image of a stethescope, teddy bear, and vaccine syringe.
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When it comes to convincing parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, school leaders need to tread the line between persistence and badgering.

A vaccine to protect elementary-age children against the coronavirus is expected within the next few weeks. But just making vaccines available hasn’t been enough on its own to help schools convince wary parents to get them for their children. The National Academies of Science released new guidance last week for schools on ways to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, both against COVID-19 and a slew of childhood diseases in danger of cropping up.

“Public health has been politicized since the beginning of this pandemic,” said Dr. Kawar Talaat, an associate professor of international health and researcher with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Immunization Research. “Because of that, I think that you’re going to have a split: groups of parents like me who cannot wait for the vaccines to be authorized for their kids. ... Then there’s going to be a group that will not vaccinate their kids, no matter what you say. And then, hopefully, there’s a group in the middle that, with education and with knowledge, would be willing to consider it.”

That’s why the National Academies suggests schools center their communication with parents around changes related to the vaccine. The guidance calls for schools to avoid rebuking or lecturing parents who have not yet gotten themselves or their children vaccinated, but instead “give opportunities to make a new decision.”

Unlike prior disease outbreaks like H1N1, parents have watched both the pandemic and the development of vaccines play out day to day, and need schools and family doctors to provide clear information, said Emily Brunson, a co-author of the guidance and an associate anthropology professor at Texas State University, where she studies vaccine participation.

“We’re living in a moment when things are highly politically charged and ... and people are being bombarded with information from resources that can be hard to sort out,” Brunson said. “So we really need to think about how can we give information or even help facilitate access to vaccines. And so it’s really knowing your population, and I think in many ways, school administrators are in a prime position to be able to understand that.”

Among the suggestions:

  • Highlight new, personally relevant information: For example, point to federal approval of the vaccines or the local data on Delta variant infections among children.
  • Focus on trends: Present data from three or more points in time to show changes in outbreaks or vaccination rates, and keep in mind that research findings are changing rapidly as different strains of the virus emerge.
  • Address myths and disinformation: Myths about vaccines in general and COVID-19 in particular can be hard for parents to overcome. Transparency can help.

Faster vaccine uptake urged

A Food and Drug Administration committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 26 to consider emergency authorization for a vaccine for children ages 5-11 by Pfizer-BioNTech, which makes the only vaccine now approved for adolescents ages 12-17. Approval is expected, in part because children ages 5-11 make up an increasing share of new infections in the pandemic. In the Western and Mountain states and in New England, children ages 5-11 now make up more than 11 percent of all new COVID-19 cases, though overall during the pandemic, children of that age have made up only 5.3 percent of all cases.

Full vaccination among older groups of children who are eligible remains steady but slow. A little more than 46 percent of children ages 12-15 have been fully immunized against COVID-19, according to CDC data as of Oct. 19

School-based vaccination days and clinics can also bolster the rate of vaccinations within communities that have less access to health care or difficulty getting to and from doctors’ appointments. And at this time, the CDC has not suggested that children or teenagers will need a booster of the vaccines, as has been recommended for many adults.

“Kids have really robust immune responses and have really good memory [of] vaccines,” Talaat said. “And actually right now there’s no evidence that healthy young adults who don’t have underlying medical conditions actually need a booster.”

The guidance also suggests that schools provide focused information and trusted community spokespeople, such as parent groups, to reach those who may have less trust in the school system. More than 1 in 4 Native American adults, about 1 in 10 Black and Hispanic adults, and nearly 15 percent of white adults say they are unlikely to ever get vaccinated against the coronavirus themselves. The CDC does not report the percentage who say they will get their children vaccinated, though experts say people tend to have more hesitation about getting their kids vaccinated than themselves. In one recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 88 percent of parents who had not gotten their eligible adolescents vaccinated said they had concerns about the long-term effects of the vaccine, with 73 percent specifically worried that it could affect children’s fertility. (The CDC has noted that there is no evidence that the vaccine affects fertility.)

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