"We trust the COVID vaccine," heads of top medical groups say in ads targeting parents

The heads of some of America's largest professional health care associations are urging parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, as part of a new advertising push by the Biden administration to persuade millions of families that have yet to do so.

The ads — a pair of 60-second spots titled "Oath" and "Trust" – feature pleas from Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the American Medical Association; Dr. Moira Szilagyi, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics; Ernest Grant, president of the American Nurses Association; and Dr. Ada Stewart, chair of the board of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Both spots are slated to run on social media as soon as Thursday, as well as on television screens starting next week.

"We took an oath to do what's best for our patients. So we want you to know we trust the COVID vaccine. For ourselves, for our patients, for our kids. So should you," the group says in the ad.

The new ads come as the pace of new vaccinations has slowed nationwide for two straight months to record lows, even though more than 57 million eligible Americans are still unvaccinated. Only about three in 10 of all first doses given over the past two weeks were administered to children.

Compared to their vaccinated peers, CDC data through January suggests that rates of COVID-19 hospitalizations were three times higher in unvaccinated children 5-11 years old and two times higher in unvaccinated children 12-15 years old.

Recent studies published by the agency have found middling effectiveness from two shots against curbing urgent care visits or infections during the Omicron wave, though adolescents with a booster shot fared significantly better.

Pfizer and BioNTech are expected to have trial results in April that could allow for younger age groups to get a third dose.

The CDC also updated its guidance last month to allow for adolescents to extend the interval to as much as 8 weeks between their first and second dose, which some studies suggest may lower the risk of rare heart inflammation side effects and improve the vaccine's protection.

"Like you, there's nothing more important to me than keeping our kids safe. What's not safe is getting COVID," the group says in the ad.

For months, federal health officials have touted their efforts to persuade hesitant families as the pool of children eligible for COVID-19 vaccines expanded.

The administration says an array of previous advertisements have reached 9 in 10 adults nationwide more than 20 times on average, citing data from Nielsen. Through programs like the "COVID-19 Community Corps" or millions of dollars awarded to organizations, the campaign has also tapped thousands of Americans to conduct outreach to promote the vaccine.

But more than four months since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended the vaccine for children as young as five, just over a quarter of kids 5-11 years old have received both shots. Close to two-thirds of children 12-17 years old are fully vaccinated. The youngest of that group have been able to get the shots since last May.

"Initially we thought that kids were pretty mildly impacted by COVID-19. And then as these new variants continued to emerge, we were seeing children that were dying. I was seeing that in my office, hospitalized families that were devastated," said Stewart.

Stewart, who works for a community health center in South Carolina, said she leapt at the opportunity a month ago to sit down in front of cameras in downtown Columbia for the advertising push in the hopes that it might persuade "families that are on the fence."

"We continue to struggle with the fact that we still have a number of individuals who are not vaccinated. So hopefully this will encourage more to get vaccinated, entire families, children as well as the adults," Stewart said.

The latest data from CDC surveys suggest around 20% of parents will probably get their children vaccinated or are unsure. The share of parents who "probably or definitely will not" get the shots has climbed, up from 21% in October to 24%.

"Accessing the vaccine is not an issue here in the state. You don't have to wait for your doctor to call you in," said Dr. José Romero, the head of the Arkansas Department of Health, "but unfortunately, our immunization rates of children are, I'll put it, dismal."

Recent reports from the CDC and Kaiser Family Foundation ranked many Southern states, including Arkansas, among the bottom half of jurisdictions in vaccinating children 5-11 years old.

Despite the plummeting pace of infections and hospitalizations in recent weeks, Romero said the state and their partners "haven't slowed down at all" in their own childhood COVID-19 vaccination initiatives, which also include paid advertising and outreach funded by Arkansas.

But efforts to persuade parents has proven challenging, given the initial reluctance of many parents themselves, he said, or unfounded reservations over its safety.

A survey from June 2021 found that 12.1% of parents who were hesitant to get vaccinated planned to have their children immunized after the shots became available. Since then, close to nine in 10 of all adults have now received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Romero also blamed misinformation as a major driver in feeding fear of long-term side effects from the shots, as well as perceptions that kids were immune to severe outcomes from an infection.

"Our parents and their reservations on taking the vaccine are going to be translated down to their children. And until parents see the need for this, that this is a serious disease, there is less of a drive to get that vaccine for the children," said Romero.

Data published by the CDC estimates that a little more than half of children have antibodies from a prior COVID-19 infection. 1,339 children have died.

A recent study from the United Kingdom, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggests that many adolescents who survive COVID-19 may end up with long-term symptoms. Romero cited other research that has linked COVID-19 to raising the risk of different health problems in children, like newly diagnosed diabetes.

"This is a perfect opportunity to get it, while things are a little bit on the lull side, to get vaccinated. To go ahead and be protected just in case we have another variant that tries to rear its ugly head," said Stewart.

"This is the time," Stewart added.

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