What was the last thing that almost 80 percent of Americans willingly did together? Less than half the country watches the Super Bowl. Despite record turnout, only 66 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2020 general election. You’d be hard-pressed to think of any activity that eight-in-ten Americans took part in collectively outside the number of eligible Americans who have sought out at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccines. Yet, the experts and elites who obsess over such things seem incapable of acknowledging this achievement. It is obscured by the much smaller population of vaccine holdouts. The unvaccinated, we are so regularly reminded, are living metaphors for our broken political culture, which they sorrowfully observe from their enlightened remove. The latest demographics subject to this aristocratic scorn are America’s children and their unsophisticated parents.
“Distrust, misinformation, and delays because of the holidays and bad weather have combined to produce what authorities say are alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in U.S. children ages 5 to 11,” the Associated Press reported on Wednesday. The dispatch observes that only 17 percent of the nation’s children are fully immunized over two months since the vaccines were approved for this age group. Nor is there much of a discernible partisan effect here. In dark blue California, just under 19 percent of kids are immunized, which doesn’t differ dramatically from child-vaccination rates in red states such as Ohio and Texas. The authorities are disconsolate.
The news is “just amazing” and “very disturbing,” according to Northwestern University’s Dr. Robert Murphy. The reluctance among the parents of pre-adolescents to get immunized forestalls a future in which we eliminate the threat of “severe disease” from Covid and transform the virus into “the common cold,” said pediatrician Dr. Jesse Hackell. It’s “a gut punch,” mourned Dr. Natasha Burgert, “especially when we’ve been working so hard to keep these kids well.”
These and other experts all bemoan what the AP suggests is a thoughtless and superstitious reluctance among parents to vaccinate their children. Indeed, it would be much simpler to attribute this phenomenon to online conspiracy theorizing and paranoia, but the numbers don’t support that self-soothing nonsense. Millions of vaccinated parents are practicing procrastination when it comes to immunizing their kids. Their judgment cannot, therefore, be attributed entirely to skepticism about the vaccines but to a perfectly rational assessment of the risks to children associated with the disease they’re supposed to be vaccinating them against.
As we near the crest of the Omicron wave—a variant so communicable that it can still infect the vaccinated, albeit with much less severe consequences—the risk of bad outcomes resulting from pediatric infections appears to be roughly the same as it ever was: very low. “We have not yet seen a signal that there is any increased severity in this age demographic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky confessed last Friday. Even as the rate of childhood Covid infections rises, hospitalizations among this age group have not. In the process, more and more parents are becoming first-hand witnesses to what a Covid-19 infection in children looks like. It’s hardly pleasant, but for the overwhelming majority, nor is it a terrifying ordeal.
As of last week, only 0.6 out of 100,000 children ages 5 to 11 were hospitalized; “roughly the same figure reported over the past many months,” the New York Times confessed. The number of hospitalizations among children four and under—a group that is not eligible for vaccination—has increased amid the Omicron surge, but that has not yet been contributed to a similarly increased risk of mortality. According to the American Association of Pediatrics, “in states reporting, 0.00%-0.02% of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.” And, as the Times observed, the children who do become severely ill “have other conditions or weak immune systems,” which would make them uniquely vulnerable to any number of respiratory infections that we do not mitigate with society-wide emergency interventions.
Do those who find themselves doubled over by the “gut punch” of low child-vaccination rates imagine that parents are unaware of these relative risks? Or maybe that they just don’t care about their child’s health? Surely, it’s psychologically easier for those who don’t understand the calculations these parents are making to attribute them to “distrust, misinformation,” or simple lethargy. That is, however, far less logically satisfying than accepting the possibility that these parents are compartmentalizing risk in perfectly sensible ways. It’s the same level of risk they’ve been navigating for two years. What’s more, it is a risk commensurate with the risks associated with driving in a car or bus, swimming in open water, or even catching one of many respiratory diseases that circulate among children in social settings.
So, what are the rewards associated with vaccination beyond staving off the already unlikely prospect of a bad outcome arising from infection in children without preexisting conditions? It isn’t returning to a normal educational environment. Masking and social-distancing regimes in schools are already more a function of geography (and the political preferences that prevail in various locales) than child-vaccination rates. And the return to 2020-style remote learning in some school districts is attributable more to staffing issues arising from either infection among adults or quarantining protocols associated with contact tracing.
This may seem irresponsibly parochial to those for whom individual self-interest is a tawdry concern when compared with what they define as society’s immediate imperatives. And yet, individuals will pursue their self-interest in maximally beneficial ways, regardless of the finger-wagging such behavior inspires among policymakers and practitioners of preventative medicine. If public-health officials hope to serve the public, it would help if they understood people.