Trust will be key to vaccinating youngest children in 'marathon' rollout, hospital CEOs say

Now that children as young as 6 months old are able to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, hospitals and health systems are gearing up to address patient family concerns regarding those vaccines. 

On June 17, the FDA authorized the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for these children, the youngest age group to be eligible to receive the vaccine, and the CDC has backed the FDA's authorization.

In the wake of this announcement, Becker's asked healthcare CEOs to share how their communications strategies surrounding the vaccines are different from earlier rollouts. 

Robert Quinn, MD, CEO of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, a nonprofit ambulatory organization that provides primary and specialty care across California, pointed to less anticipation in terms of the vaccine this time around. 

"The positive drama of the vaccine coming, and excitement, is not there [like December 2020]. There is less pent-up demand to get it," Dr. Quinn said. "Especially with parents and children, we know there's already some vaccine hesitancy from other vaccines in the community."

As of June 27, roughly 35 percent of eligible children ages 5-11 in California were vaccinated, according to state data.

Given that, Dr. Quinn does not anticipate there will be huge demand among the youngest eligible group, so his clinics are focusing on education. 

"If people call and want to get the vaccine done as a standalone visit, we're more than happy to do it," he said during a June 24 phone interview. "Right now, we haven't seen that we're going to have to stand up a lot of clinics. What I anticipate and what we really want to do is families come to clinics for regular appointments, including back-to-school physicals, [and] we use that as an opportunity to provide education."

He said his clinics learned from the adult vaccine rollout that the best way to educate people and the form in which they are most likely to be accepting of vaccine information is with a provider with whom they have a trusting relationship. 

"We want to leverage our existing relationships to convince families this is the right thing for their children," Dr. Quinn said.

Still, he acknowledged the messaging about the potential dangers of COVID-19 is more challenging with families of young children. 

He said he strives to approach the topic with families "in a neutral, nonjudgmental way … and fully recognize it may take more than one visit for someone to process and digest the information and come to their decision."

"Although we'd like to get it done as quickly as possible, we do recognize that this is going to be a marathon," Dr. Quinn said. 

Wesley Burks, MD, CEO of Chapel Hill, N.C.-based UNC Health, brings his experience as a pediatrician to the latest vaccine rollout.

"The relationship between a pediatrician and family is built on a trust and mutual understanding that everyone wants what's best for the health of the child," Dr. Burks said. "More than other times during the vaccine rollout, decisions about whether to vaccinate young children will be made after one-on-one conversations between pediatricians and families."

He also said parents would have questions, and he is confident his colleagues "will be able to explain the many benefits of the vaccines, their safety and their efficacy. Then, together with their pediatrician, my hope is that families decide that receiving the vaccine is the best way to protect the health of their child and get some relief after the last two years."

Texas Children's Hospital in Houston has used feedback from patient families from previous vaccine rollouts to help address questions this time around. The hospital also has partnered with community pillars such as schools and churches to promote the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

"We know many parents were eagerly awaiting the decision of the FDA and CDC to authorize these vaccines, so we began patient communications early to make parents aware of how Texas Children's Hospital would be there to support them in getting their child vaccinated," Mark A. Wallace, president and CEO of Texas Children's Hospital, told Becker’s. 

These efforts included messaging to help patient families navigate their options and understand the differences between the two vaccine choices. 

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