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Vaccinating young kids might finally be possible this month. But will it be easy?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Well, after a long wait, COVID-19 vaccines could finally be available really soon for very young children. We're talking about kids under 5 years old. Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID 19 response coordinator, delivered these words yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHISH JHA: We expect that vaccinations will begin in earnest as early as Tuesday, June 21, and really roll on throughout that week.

CHANG: It is news that some parents around the country have been waiting for for what seems like forever. So we have brought Dr. Jha back to the show to talk about this announcement and answer some questions about the vaccination plan going forward. Welcome.

JHA: Thank you for having me back.

CHANG: OK. So even though parents of this age group have been waiting so long for a vaccine, I want to ask you, if we look at the next age group up - that's 5 to 11-year-olds - vaccination was authorized for them six months ago. And only about 30% of that age group is fully vaccinated. Do you have any reason to believe the vaccination rate will be any better for these younger children?

JHA: Yeah, so that's a great question. I think we have to continue to do a better job of explaining why vaccines are such an important way of protecting children. There's a lot of misinformation out there about kids and COVID. And, you know, we have to counter that. And we have to help parents understand that if you want to protect your children moving forward, vaccines represent the best way to do it.

CHANG: Right. But do you feel the administration has failed somewhat with the 5 to 11 age group in getting them vaccinated more fully?

JHA: No. I think, look. The administration has made these vaccines widely available. I think we have worked with pediatricians and family practitioners, and we've got to do more of that. We've got to keep going. We've got to help parents understand that if - in this pandemic, the pandemic is not over, that COVID is still out there, we're going to see other variants. And we want to protect children, and the best way to do it is through vaccines.

CHANG: And what is the plan then to improve the vaccination rate among not just 5 to 11-year-olds, but also among these younger kids as well?

JHA: Yeah. At the end of the day, you know, I'm a parent, and when I think about decisions I make for my kids, I am really guided and shaped by my pediatrician or my kid's pediatrician or family practitioner. So one important part of the plan certainly is to work with trusted medical providers. And the American Academy of Pediatrics has been very strong and very clear on this. I think getting more information out to pediatricians and family practitioners and helping them communicate directly to parents, I think, will also make a really important difference.

CHANG: I am curious, though. Do you see these lower vaccination rates among children as - it's an issue of mistrust in the vaccines, or is it more about parents making an informed, deliberate choice? Because data does show that these vaccines provide only modest protection for kids. What do you think the issue here is?

JHA: I think there are a couple of things. One is from the beginning of this pandemic, we have seen a downplaying of COVID. You've heard over and over again that somehow COVID is not a big deal. And the way that that has been set up is by saying it's less risky than it is for elderly people. Well, that's always true. Every disease is lower risk for children than it is for the elderly. The real question is, how does COVID compare to other risks children face? And COVID is a real challenge. And what we know is that the vaccines provide terrific protection against severe illness for kids as well as adults. And I think we have to make that - help parents understand that. And I think as we make that case, I think more parents will choose to get their kids vaccinated.

CHANG: Do you think the delay in making the vaccine available for these youngest kids has has affected the course of the pandemic in a significant way in this country? What do you think the impact has been?

JHA: Well, it's - certainly for the parents of kids under 5, it's been an incredibly frustrating period. And I have a lot of friends who have kids under 5. They have been, I think, frustrated by the delay. But it isn't - the issue is that when you think about kids under 5, you've got to get the right dosing. You can't just use an adult dose. You know, obviously, these are smaller humans, and so we want to get the dosing right. You want to make sure that it's safe and effective in this population. And that has all taken time. And I think the companies have worked quickly. I think the FDA has worked quickly. But at the end of the day, we've always wanted to get it right. We thought that was the most important thing.

CHANG: Right. Well, I want to talk about your job in particular, because, you know, in many ways - it feels like this to me, it feels like this to my friends, my colleagues - that people all over the U.S. are just sort of moving on right now, like, either pretending the pandemic is over or simply deciding for themselves that the risk of infection is acceptable. And I'm wondering, does that shifting mindset now, does it make your job harder these days? Does it make it harder to get the message across from the White House that we still need to care about COVID?

JHA: Well, the way I look at it is that the goal was always to make COVID less disruptive, to make COVID less harmful to the American people. We've made an incredible amount of progress on that. So I think that's a good thing, by the way, Ailsa. That's not a problem. That's a good thing. And the way we've done it is by making sure that, you know, that vaccines are widely available. Two-thirds of Americans are now fully vaccinated, a third are boosted. We've done a lot to make treatments available. The fact that COVID creates less fear is a good thing. That's always been a goal.

Now, we still have a messaging challenge, which is we have to help people understand that COVID is not over - doesn't mean that it needs to rule our lives the way it did a year ago, but that we need to still take precautions to make sure we have plenty of vaccines and treatments, continue to do the things that we know will protect Americans. That's still on the agenda.

CHANG: That is Dr. Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Thank you very much for joining us again today.

JHA: Thank you for having me back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Sarah Handel
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