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'They are so vulnerable': What getting COVID-19 vaccines means for medically complex kids

Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman

"He just wants to be a little kid again," Jessica Kerr said of her son Emmett Scoville, 8.

Emmett was one of about 100 kids who received the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday through a special clinic set up by Dell Children's Medical Center and the Travis County Vaccine Collaborative.

Two weeks ago, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and the greenlight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for kids ages 5 to 11. It already had received emergency use authorization for kids ages 12 to 15, and full approval for people 16 and older. 

Thursday's clinic was specifically designed for kids who are treated by Dell Children's Comprehensive Care Clinic and their family members.

"These kids are the most vulnerable," said Dr. Alefiyah Malbari, a pediatrician at Dell Children's. "They are at high-risk just because of their medical complexities. They are so vulnerable. It's important to get them vaccinated." 

It's not just these kids who need to get vaccinated, she said: "Kids in general are germy." 

Dell Children's Medical Center set up a mobile vaccination clinic to get kids served by its Comprehensive Care Clinic and their families immunized against COVID-19.

Children right now make up about one-fourth of all COVID-19 cases in the United States. The CDC has tracked 595 COVID-19 deaths in children up to age 17, and 4,330 kids have been hospitalized for COVID-19. About one-third of all kids hospitalized have no preexisting condition or other higher risk factor.

Getting kids ages 5 to 11 vaccinated is "a huge 'yay' for us as pediatricians," Malbari said. 

This day was a big deal for Emmett. Kerr said that, as he was getting out of the car, he told his mom: "This is how I get my life back. It would mean everything to get out in the world."

Kerr said the family has been following his doctor's advice because of Emmett's compromised immune system and have been stuck in lockdown since COVID-19 first was detected in Austin in March 2020. 

To get back into the world, Emmett had to be brave, take his arm out of his long-sleeved shirt and get his shot.

He also needs others to be brave, too, and get vaccinated to reduce the virus spread in the community. People with compromised immune systems like Emmett might not receive the same level of immunity that healthy people get from the vaccine. 

"It's really important that everyone get vaccinated," Kerr said. 

Stacks of signs for vaccine recipients to hold up and take their pictures with read, "I got the COVID-19 vaccine because: I can visit my grandparents... I can protect myself ... I can go to school ... I can protect my younger siblings."

Parents of healthy children might not realize there are kids who look fine, but have medical complexities that put them in danger for a virus. Those parents, though, can help children like hers, said Kate Robinson, who brought her sons Apollo, 7, and Oliver, 9, to the clinic. 

"You could save a child's life just by vaccinating your child," Robinson said. 

Apollo has a syndrome that affects his stomach, and keeping Apollo safe from COVID-19 meant that Oliver also missed out on many things. 

"It's been a really hard couple of years," Robinson said. 

Getting both boys vaccinated, she said, means "liberation" for the family. 

 "We can start living the life of real people again," she said. "It's going to take a while to sink in."

In deciding to vaccinate, Robinson and her husband, Robert Howell, looked at the vaccine research and talked to Apollo's doctor. "She didn't have any concerns," he said. "We felt comfortable."

"We feel so much gratitude to all the public health folks who have made this a reality that we are here so quickly," Robinson said. 

Dr. Allison Lopez, left, gives Julia Choe, 5, her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday while she sits on mother Trisha's lap at a mobile clinic.

Trisha Choe got teary when she thought about her daughter, Julia, 5, getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Julia has the genetic disorder trisomy 18.

It means "protection," Choe said of the vaccine. "We've been looking forward to her turn." 

Choe especially became concerned about her daughter's health as the delta variant took over. "It's been brutal to watch," she said. "The kids with the delta variant get so sick." 

Julia has been kept at home, but she'll be able to go to school next semester. She'll have had her second dose by then. 

They had been talking about the vaccine leading up to Thursday. "She's going to be brave," Choe said. And she was. 

Holly Cole's 5-year-old son Anderson wasn't thrilled by his vaccination. There were tears, and a lot of hugs afterward. 

"It means my son gets to go to school," Cole said. "He was completely quarantined for a year and a half." 

It also means she doesn't have to worry as much about Cole's 7-year-old sister Catherine, who is not medically complex like Cole. Catherine had started going back to school, but she knew that if she came in contact with anyone with COVID-19, she would have to quarantine and stay away from her brother. 

Now she's also received her first dose. 

Leif Ramirez, 11, wears an "I got my COVID-19 vaccine" sticker after being vaccinated Thursday. Leif said he is happy to get the vaccine so he can safely see his friends and to protect his sister.

Leif Ramirez, 11, was getting vaccinated for his sister, who is 7 and was born with a condition that causes benign tumors all over her body. She also got vaccinated Thursday.

"It makes me super happy," Leif said. "Now I'm going to have a lot of options. I can hang out with my friends. I can go new places. ... It reduces my chance of getting COVID in general."

He wants more kids, and adults, too, to get vaccinated. 

"It would be better if they would just get the vaccine, and everybody could help fight COVID," Leif said. 

Dell Children's will add more clinics in the coming weeks for pediatric vaccinations and will be reaching out to patients and the community on how to schedule an appointment through the hospital.