Doctor on vaccinating America's youth amid a rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases

Dr. Susannah Hills, a pediatric airway surgeon and assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center, joins CBSN to discuss getting children as young as 12 vaccinated against COVID-19 amid a rise in pediatric cases.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: The CDC gave its blessing yesterday for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to be used with kids as young as 12 years old. The US health agency voted in favor of giving shots to adolescents nationwide between the ages of 12 and 15 years old, but parents are split over whether to begin to take advantage of that.

In a recent poll, 30% said that they would get their kids in this age group vaccinated right away. But 23% said they will opt against it. Dr. Susannah Hills is a Pediatric Airway Surgeon and Assistant Professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center, and she's joining us again this week, as she always does on this day. So let's talk about this-- Pfizer's vaccine has now been approved for kids 12 to 15 by both the FDA and the CDC.

As summer approaches, there are a lot of variants that have been popping up out there. What's your take on kids getting vaccinated? Is it a good idea?

SUSANNAH HILLS: I think this is a fantastic idea. This is just the news that I've been waiting for-- that we're beginning to be able to get more children vaccinated. And for me, working in a children's hospital from my perspective, I just don't want to have to put another surgical breathing tube in another child with this disease. I don't want to see another child admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. It's rare, but it is still happening.

So for me, this is a really important, meaningful step forward in not only getting our kids safe, but getting everybody safe, and getting everybody back to all of the activities that we want to enjoy, getting back to normal life. So yes, I think this is great news.

- Dr. Hills, as a pediatric airway surgeon, have you witnessed any symptoms or complications due to COVID-19 in children specifically that needed the attention of your specialty?

SUSANNAH HILLS: Oh, absolutely, yes. I have, unfortunately, lost patients to this disease. So children can get very sick with this illness even though it's rare. We've had kids in our ICUs. We've had kids on ventilators. We've had children need surgical breathing tubes to help them breathe.

So absolutely, we've seen children get sick and get very sick. And 43 states have had children die with this disease. So it's happening. It's real. And beyond that, I'll say it's now become a very common thing. On a weekly basis, I'm seeing children come to my clinic, call my clinic sick with COVID-19 or have a test that's positive for COVID-19.

Last week, the percentage of cases-- overall COVID cases that were children were 24%. So we're seeing a larger and larger proportion of our COVID cases happening in kids. And this move to get these children protected, to get them vaccinated I think is absolutely going to be a really important step to stopping this, and to stopping these cases that we're seeing, and to getting children healthy.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: But you know, you heard, doctor, there's a percentage of the parental population that this is just a no-go for them. There's another percentage that says, look, I'm going to wait and see-- you know, let some people go before me. And then if it works out, I'll let my kid get vaccinated.

Earlier today, Dr. Anthony Fauci joined "CBS This Morning," and he discussed the potential concerns that parents might have when it comes to the long-term effects of the vaccine and their child. I want to play some of what he had to say.

ANTHONY FAUCI: It's a perfectly normal thing to be concerned about your children and to question. And that's the reason why you want to get them as much information as you possibly can and be very open and transparent about the information. It is very important for children to get vaccinated-- one, because even though it's quite true that if children get infected, the seriousness of the infection in children is clearly less than the potential in certain adults, particularly the elderly and those with underlying conditions. But we are starting to see younger people get into serious trouble-- again, at a very low rate, but serious trouble.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So the CDC says that there's no federal requirement for parents to be present for COVID-19 shots. But even so, what's your advice to parents who might be concerned about vaccinating their children with this specific shot? And what will you also advise older teens who might get-- who might want to get the shot, but their parents don't want them to?

I think it's a very dicey area. You know, when the CDC says, you know, there's no parental permission required, it may be a fact. But you don't want to get the sense that the CDC is circumventing the desires of parents. So what do you say to kids-- what do you say to parents, but then what do you say to kids who say, well, I want the shot, and my parents don't want me to get it?

SUSANNAH HILLS: That's a really-- it is a challenging but healthy scenario for people to be asking questions. There are naturally going to be different perspectives. And I think the main thing is that people are talking about it. And I love Dr. Fauci's response-- you know, the idea of being open to questions, being open to people who really want to have more information to make sure they're making the right choice. I think that's a good thing.

I love it when kids come to my clinic with questions of their own. And so what I found more often than not is that when children and parents both come with questions and they may not be on exactly the same page, if they're sitting together, and we're having a conversation, and everybody is asking the questions that they have, then it's really easier than you think to come to a mutual understanding.

And so you know, my approach is to sit, to try to honestly answer all of the questions we have, talk about the risks, talk about the benefits. And when people understand how much worse the risks of COVID-19 are than the very rare, uncommon side effects of the vaccine and how well the vaccine is tolerated, people tend to come around to wanting to protect themselves from the disease itself.

The other thing I'd say is, you know, if we don't come to a mutual agreement on getting the vaccine, it's often so, so helpful to have them talk to other people who maybe have gotten the vaccine-- friends, family members-- so that they can ask what their experience was, ask what they felt afterwards. And you know, if it's not something that you're talking to me, we fully agree on, then often, they can get some really helpful advice from people who have already gotten the vaccine. And that's what I'm encouraging parents to do to-- to talk to other parents in their school system, their kids' friends' parents about what they're thinking about and making the decision for their child, and to try to ask all the questions they have and get as much information as they can from whoever they trust.

- Doctor, the "New York Times" reports the president of America's second-largest teacher's union, Randy Weingarten, is planning to call for a full reopening of schools for the next academic year. What's your reaction to that?

SUSANNAH HILLS: I think opening the schools is so, so important. My husband's a teacher. I understand the concerns that have been there, both on the part of teachers and parents, about keeping everybody safe, about preventing the spread of this disease within the schools.

But I have felt more and more confident about fully reopening schools and looking at last fall, this spring, kids going back to school, and how safe it really has been for everybody to be back in the classroom. So I think it is a really safe move. I fully support it.

I am thrilled that teachers have been able to get vaccinated and now that children are being able to be vaccinated as well, at least, you know, ages 12 to 15. And hopefully before long, we'll be able to get the younger kids vaccinated as well. We do need more data on that, but I think it's safe.

I think people do have to adopt into the school culture for a while until we really have this pandemic under control those same things we've been doing-- like masking, keeping distance between kids, at least three feet, and trying to work in cohorts until we really get a majority of children vaccinated. But I think it's the right move.

- All right, Dr. Susannah Hills, always great to have you. Thank you very much.

SUSANNAH HILLS: Thanks so much.