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Dr. Wendy Hasson says even kids under 5 with no preexisting conditions can get very sick with COVID-19.

PMG PHOTO: DANA HAYNES - Medical Assistant Bonnie Betancourt of the Clackamas and Oregon Pediatrics Clinic, left, explains the vaccination process to a slightly concerned Olivia Hassan, 14 months, as dad Dr. Ryan Hassan looks on. Dr. Hassan is a pediatrician.
Dr. Wendy Hasson has seen a lot of very sick kids as medical director at Randall Children's Hospital's pediatric intensive care unit.

But kids infected with COVID-19 have been among the sickest kids she has ever cared for, she said.

That's part of why it was a moment of long-anticipated relief for Hasson when federal and state officials authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 6 months through 4 years old within the last few days.

It also was a moment of relief because Hasson is a mother of a 3-year-old son and a two-month-old daughter.COURTESY PHOTO - Dr. Wendy Hasson, medical director at Randall Children's Hospital's pediatric intensive care unit.

"Parents have felt like they've had such little control in this pandemic," Hasson said. Communities removed protections to prevent transmission of the virus long ago, she added. "The world has kind of moved on and left parents of young children behind. So this is a moment when parents can finally take the bull by the horns and say, 'I get to make a health decision for my child.'"

Kids have been largely fortunate to experience COVID-19 less severely than older people. In Oregon, less than 1% of kids 9 and under have been hospitalized, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

But the public perception that kids without preexisting conditions don't ever get very sick from COVID-19 is false, Hasson said.

"This virus does affect kids, it affects previously healthy kids and it can affect them severely," she said. "Even though it's uncommon when that happens, when it does happen it's not only disruptive but it's devastating. It's really scary for both the kids and their families."PMG PHOTO: DANA HAYNES - The Clackamas and Oregon Pediatrics Clinic, 8645 S.E. Sunnybrook Blvd., No. 200, Clackamas, offered a vaccination clinic for children from 6 months to 5 years on Saturday, June 25, just a week after the federal government OK'd the youngest patients for the COVID-19 vaccine.

While the number of child hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 is small, Hasson says that overshadows the other ways it can impact children.

Hospitals are increasingly seeing illnesses such as autoimmune diabetes and organ infections in kids who've previously been infected with COVID-19, she said. They are experiencing long covid symptoms that are hurting their performance in school. An illness that causes body parts such as the heart, lungs, skin or eyes to become inflamed in children exposed to the virus — multisystem inflammatory syndrome — is small, studies show. But it can be very serious and require urgent care, Hasson said.

"Kids could get COVID-19 now, but we're asking them to live the next 70, 80, 90 years of their lives with whatever subsequently happens after that," Hasson said.

All of the COVID-19 patients she has cared for in the pediatric ICU have been unvaccinated, she said.

With 5- to 11-year-olds being vaccinated at the lowest rate of any age group in Multnomah County and statewide, vaccination rates for kids under 5 could be similar, Hasson acknowledged.

She understands that every parent wants to make the safest, healthiest choice for their child, she said.

The benefits of vaccinating young children against COVID-19 far outweigh the potential consequences of not doing so, Hasson said.

The vaccines are safe and effective, she emphasized. She pointed to the data from clinical trials of the vaccines for kids under 5 as well as the 10 million kids aged 5 to 11 who've received at least one vaccine dose with an "exceptionally low" number of adverse side effects.

The vaccines elicit the same side effects in kids under 5 as they do in older kids and adults: pain at the injection site, headache, fever, chills and fatigue.

Many parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19 say they're concerned that unforeseen side effects could appear potentially years in the future, Hasson said.

It's important to know that COVID-19 vaccines don't leave any materials in people's bodies long-term and they don't alter any genetic material in cells, she said.PMG PHOTO: DANA HAYNES - Medical Assistant Bonnie Betancourt swabs the leg of 14-month-old Olivia Hassan as her dad, Ryan Hassan, looks on.

Adverse side effects would present themselves shortly after the vaccines are administered and would be detected in clinical trials.

"Almost 1 billion people worldwide have received these vaccines safely," Hasson said.

Noting that many children under 5 have already been infected with COVID-19, she said that people shouldn't rely on natural immunity. "The immune response you get from infection is not long-lasting."

With the unpredictability of the virus and new variants still appearing, the safest thing people can do is to be vaccinated, she added.

Oregon health officials are telling parents interested in scheduling vaccine appointments for their children under 5 to call their primary care providers. People can also use the state's Get Vaccinated Oregon website to search for vaccine appointments. The tool shows vaccine appointments only after providers have received doses and indicated they are ready to administer them.

More than 75,000 doses of the vaccine for children under 5 were delivered to providers throughout the state by Friday, June 23, said Rudy Owens, spokesperson for the OHA. Of those, nearly 31,000 doses were delivered to providers in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. Another 97,000 doses have been allocated to providers statewide through July 1, Owens said.

While vaccines for children under 5 will be in limited supply during the first weeks of their rollout, Owens said, officials expect to have plenty of doses to meet demand.

"Oregon is well-positioned to vaccinate the population of children under five," he said.

Officials expect about 27% of children under 5 statewide to be vaccinated in the first 10 weeks of vaccines being available, Owens said. The estimate was based on the uptake of the vaccine by 5- to 11-year-olds.

Multnomah County's federally qualified health center received 1000 doses of the Moderna vaccine for children aged 6 months to 5 years on Wednesday, June 22, said Kate Yeiser, spokesperson for the county.

Shots will be available to that age group at community health center clinics in about two weeks, after staff receive training to administer the new doses, Yeiser said. Health center staff will contact clients in early July to let them know when they can schedule appointments, she said.

Appointments will be available to enrolled patients. Families without a primary care provider can call 503-988-5558 to enroll as new patients at the county's health centers.

To compare vaccine dose timing for kids under 5, click here.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information from the OHA about dose deliveries and uptake expectations.

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