The Wright family of Brunswick are looking forward to vaccinations becoming available to their young children Friday. They are, from left, George, Aedan, 2, Lai, Ava, 15, and Jesse, 4. Aedan and Jesse have not received the vaccine yet. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Lai Wright strolled past the Brunswick library recently with her two boys, Aedan and Jesse, both under age 5.

Her sons are in the last age group to not have access to the COVID-19 vaccines, and the family continues to avoid indoor public activities.

“I thought, ‘I’d really like to take them in there. My two-year-old hasn’t even ever been in the library yet. What is he missing out on?” Wright said.

Adults and teenagers first started getting their shots about a year ago, and 5- to 11-year-olds gained access to vaccines last fall, providing a level of protection to resume a more “normal” life.

While not all parents of younger children are eager to get them vaccinated, it’s been a long wait for families such as the Wrights, who have put parts of their lives on hold for the past two years. Indoor birthday parties and play dates, museums, concerts and visits with grandparents have been curtailed or shut down completely for families of young children who want the protection offered by the vaccine.

That could change in the not-too-distant future, although families such as Wright’s are now once again in the “wait and see” mode.

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Jesse Wright 4, jumps in the kitchen while getting ready for snacks with his family. At the counter to the left is Aedan 2, and their father, George. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

While there had been hope for a February approval of vaccines for preschool children, that decision has now been pushed back until April at the earliest, according to statements Friday by vaccine manufacturer Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration.

Pfizer is seeking federal approval for a COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months through 4 years, but approval was delayed again to gather additional data on a third dose for 2- to 4-year-olds. That age group may need a booster in addition to the two-shot vaccine. The shot being developed for young children has 10 percent of the dose given to people 12 and older.

Andy Slavitt, former senior COVID-19 advisor for the Biden administration, said in a tweet that “the news may sound disappointing but it almost certainly signals that we will have good data on the third dose very soon.”

Still, the news on Friday was a blow to parents who have been waiting patiently for vaccine approval.

Joy Engel, of Cape Elizabeth and the mother of a 4-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, said she feels like “Charlie Brown with the football. It’s always getting pulled away from me.”

“We thought it was going to be September (2021) and then we thought it was going to be December and then February, and now April,” Engel said. “Forgive me if I’m not holding my breath.”

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The under 5 group was the last to be tested for vaccine approval because scientists prioritized older age groups who were more likely to fall severely ill from the disease.

For the Wright family, a library visit is just one small example of what’s been missing.

Lai Wright looks for ideas on the computer while playing Legos with her children Jesse, and Aedan. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

They have also stopped traveling and have shied away from socializing indoors. “We’ve had zero people over in our house,” Wright said.

Once the vaccines are approved and her boys get their shots, the family can once again visit her parents and other relatives who live in Rochester, New York, Wright said. They haven’t seen them in two years while waiting to get Aedan and Jesse vaccinated.

“I would really like to take them to visit family,” Wright said. “I haven’t even met two of my nephews yet.”

VACCINE UPTAKE AMONG CHILDREN SLOW

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If the FDA grants approval, about 63,500 children in Maine will become eligible, representing about 5 percent of the state’s population. But if uptake is similar to the 5- to 11-year-old age group, about one-third of Maine children under 5 would get vaccinated within three months of the vaccine becoming available, resulting in about 21,000 children becoming immunized. Nationally, about 28 percent of children ages 5-11 have gotten their COVID-19 shots.

The under 5 immunization effort won’t move the needle much on Maine’s overall vaccination rate – perhaps increasing it by about 1.5 to 2 percent. But it would make children who get the shots safer and help reduce transmission of COVID-19.

Reasons that some parents are not getting children vaccinated vary widely.

Dr. Lawrence Losey, a Brunswick pediatrician, said political views falsely resulting in skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines, misinformation about vaccines being dangerous and apathy are the main reasons vaccine uptake among 5- to 11-year-olds hasn’t been higher. Adults are much more likely to get their shots, with 80 percent of adults in Maine vaccinated.

Losey said there’s a misperception that the virus doesn’t affect children, and that is also leading to fewer parents being motivated to get their kids vaccinated. While it’s true that children are not as likely to get severe disease as older adults, they can still fall very ill from COVID-19, and can suffer from long-term COVID-19 complications, need hospitalization, and, in very rare cases, die.

“There are a lot of parents not leaping at the opportunity to get their kids immunized,” Losey said. “As a society, we’ve done a lousy job of risk assessment.”

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Mae’s mother, Mollie Barnathan, left, is a mother of three daughters and hopes Mae will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination in early March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Kejda Gjermani, of Cape Elizabeth, is one parent who is so far not willing to vaccinate her children against COVID-19, even though they are immunized against all other childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps and polio.

Gjermani, a mother of four young girls, including her 4-year-old daughter Adelaide, said the vaccine is still new, and she believes with healthy children there is not much risk from COVID-19.

“Prudence dictates I should wait until there’s more data on the vaccine,” Gjermani said. She said it’s possible but unlikely she could be persuaded otherwise.

She said the risk-benefit analysis leans toward not getting the vaccine for her children. But Gjermani said she and her husband, as older people more at-risk from COVID-19, are vaccinated against the virus.

Losey said the vaccines have been rigorously researched, and the benefits for children and adults far outweigh any possible side effects from the vaccine.

Losey said, for example, myocarditis risk among teen males and young adult men is much higher for those who get infected with COVID-19, and lower among those who are vaccinated. But that message seems to be getting lost as people raise false alarms about the risks of myocarditis – inflammation of the heart – from the vaccine, Losey said.

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“We’re trying to keep getting the message to people to understand this is a safe vaccine, this is an effective vaccine,” Losey said.

For the under 5 population, Losey said part of the strategy will be immunization clinics, but also talking to parents one-on-one about the COVID-19 vaccine. A good opportunity to do so will be when parents are bringing their infants or young children to the doctor’s office for other reasons. Up to age 2, they are typically coming in every few months.

“If you’re coming in anyway and need a COVID-19 vaccine, we’ll give it to you,” Losey said.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, the parent organization that includes Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, said that while there will be some immunization clinics, the larger strategy for the under 5 age group will be to vaccinate them at doctors’ offices.

With the under 5 population having the smallest number of people in it of any group so far to be vaccinated, there is not a need for large-scale immunization clinics like there were last year at the former Scarborough Downs site, the Portland Expo and Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, public health experts have said.

Mae Barnathan, 2, kicks a basketball to her mother, Mollie Barnathan, who hopes Mae will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination in early March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“WE HAVE TO GET BACK TO LIFE”

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Mollie Barnathan, of Portland, is a mother of three daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, and she said they are ready to vaccinate their youngest, Mae, as soon as the vaccines become available.

“Once Mae gets her shots, we’ll feel like we can breathe a little easier,” said Barnathan, a public health consultant and post-partum doula. “We have had to do the most conservative things to protect the one unvaccinated kid.”

But Barnathan said it’s not just about her daughter’s personal safety, but also being responsible and limiting contact so that she doesn’t inadvertently spread the virus to others in the community.

Mollie Barnathan is a mother to three daughters, including Mae, 2, who will likely be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination in early March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Hannah Frey of Falmouth, a preschool teacher and assistant director at the preschool, said her family, which includes daughter Charlotte, 7, and son, Silas, 4, is ready to get back to activities they’ve missed the past two years while waiting for a vaccine for Silas.

She said once he’s vaccinated and they feel safe to do so, they will go to museums, indoor restaurants, museums, see a play, and go to Disney World. The Disney trip has been rescheduled several times over the past two years as COVID-19 variants result in new waves of disease. But once everyone in their household is vaccinated, that will be different, Frey said.

“We have to loosen up, and we have to get back to life and learn how to live with this,” Frey said. She said she’s been “super conservative” not only to protect her family but also others. With her job teaching preschool to a group that is mostly not yet eligible for vaccines, her personal decisions have an impact on the students she teaches and their families.

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Joy Engel, the Cape Elizabeth mom, said it will be an “immense relief” when the vaccines are approved.

“We are going to get the first vaccine offered to our children as soon as it’s offered.”

Engel said she’s had to say “no” to a lot of activities, and “my friends lovingly call me the killer of fun.” She said parents of young children sometimes feel overlooked, “super invisible” to most others who have been able to do more things during the pandemic.

She said she’s ready to resume more activities soon, like indoor birthday parties, the children’s museum and even a simple task like going to the grocery store.

“I want a trip to the grocery store that doesn’t involve a child care plan,” Engel said. “If I need to go to the grocery store, I can just bring them with me.”

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