Only 4.4% of youngest Kansas children vaccinated against COVID: 'It's certainly sad. It's tragic'

Seven weeks have passed since the youngest children became eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, and Kansas doctors are troubled by extremely low vaccine uptake.

"It's certainly sad. It's tragic," said Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Kansas Health System.

The latest Kansas Department of Health and Environment COVID-19 vaccination data reports about 8,000 children younger than 5 have gotten a first dose. That's 4.3% of the population group and far less than the about 67,000 doses the agency pre-ordered in June.

A White House report puts the under-5 vaccination rate at 4.4% in Kansas.

Despite the low vaccination rate, Kansas is better than the national average. Nationwide, 3.8% of the under-5 population has gotten at least one shot. An analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health organization, found that uptake has already peaked and has started dropping.

More: With COVID vaccines nearing approval for youngest children, Kansas has pre-ordered 66,800 doses

Low uptake of COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5 years old in Kansas and the United States has doctors worried about public health and schools.
Low uptake of COVID-19 vaccine for children under age 5 years old in Kansas and the United States has doctors worried about public health and schools.

"We know that kids — although luckily affected less than adults or older age kids — can be affected and it's important to understand," Hawkinson said. "What if that child was somebody you knew, was in your family, was in your bubble? We know children can be affected by the multisystem inflammatory disorder, can be affected by severe disease, but also long COVID.

"We know the vaccines do help prevent and reduce the risk of that."

Thirteen children have died from COVID-19 in Kansas, including seven in the infant to 9-year-old age group, KDHE data show. Several hundred children have been hospitalized.

Kansas has had 49 cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19, a serious condition that cause inflammation in the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs.

Vaccination rates are important for protecting the community, health officials say.

"Higher immunization rates protect vulnerable children who are too young to be vaccinated or who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, making immunizations an essential response to COVID-19 and other diseases," the Kansas Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has reported.

School year starts without COVID vaccine requirements

New cases of COVID-19 had been rising across the state for much of the summer, but appear to now be stagnant or declining. Community transmission remains high with a new subvariant, though hospitalizations are not as high as during past waves.

Despite high transmission, schools aren't taking the same public health precautions as during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Official have been especially hesitant to reimplement mask mandates.

While school-aged children are eligible for vaccination, relatively few are.

White House data show that in Kansas, about 74% of the entire population has gotten at least one dose of a vaccine. That number rises to 86% of all adults and 95% of all seniors who are 65 or older. But it drops among children, with 62% of the 12-17 age group and 32% of those ages 5-11.

All of those statistics are at or below national figures.

Across the United States, about 79% of people got at least one shot, compared to 37% of 5-11, 70% of 12-17, 90% of all adults and 95% of those 65 and older.

"It looks like school vaccine mandates for COVID-19 are not happening," said Steve Stites, chief medical officer of The University of Kansas Health System. "We're seeing some reports about that coming across the country. It's like folks have kind of just relaxed a little bit."

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and KDHE leadership have said they don't have plans to add COVID-19 to the child wellness vaccine schedule.

More: COVID vaccine requirement for Kansas students? Gov. Laura Kelly says it's premature to speculate.

Hawkinson, the infectious disease specialist, said parents have to do what is best for their child.

"Everybody continues to have this myth that children are not affected by COVID-19, and that is absolutely false," he said. "Now, the rate of having complications is certainly less in older children and adolescents than adults, but they still are affected."

Polio case highlights vaccine skepticism

The doctors said that skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines has crept into inoculations for other diseases, reducing uptake.

They cited a case of polio reported in New York, who was unvaccinated patient. Since then, public health officials have said wastewater testing suggests polio is circulating in parts of the state.

More: 'Tip of the iceberg': New York health officials raise alarms over possible polio spread

Stites, a pulmonologist, said he is old enough to have treated patients who suffered long-term complications from polio, which was eradicated in the U.S. in 1979.

The public feels safe because people no longer see the effects of polio, smallpox, measles, mumps or rubella, Stites said.

"But all of a sudden, if you don't have the vaccination, you will see those things," he said. "And the things you're going to see, because I've seen them, they're not pretty."

Hawkinson said parents should talk to their pediatricians about getting their children vaccinated for all vaccine-preventable diseases. He noted that the U.S. hasn't had significant problems with those diseases since public schools started mandating the vaccines.

"I think everybody should take this to heart," he said. "And I say this in the context of we have vaccines to combat these vaccine-preventable diseases. I think within the last year or six months, we had heard a politician somewhere wanted to do away with vaccine mandates. And this is absolutely the worst public health thing to do."

More: 'Bring back measles.' Kansas legislators debate slew of COVID-inspired attacks on public health laws

Politicians targeted vaccines

While several lawmakers proposed ways to effectively neuter school vaccine mandates, the Legislature never passed any of one of the slew of variations on the idea.

Anti-vaccine politics divided Republican legislators — especially after public health advocates at Nurture KC presented polling showing overwhelming support for child wellness vaccines.

The survey found that 95% of respondents support the inoculations and 91% support the existing vaccine mandates for children to attend K-12 schools and child care facilities.

The idea that advanced the furthest was to redefine religious exemptions to include non-theistic moral and ethic believes, allowing any parent to opt their child out of school and day care immunization requirements.

Another proposal would have prohibited schools from inquiring into the sincerity of a religious belief used to justify an exemption, which appears to already be the case.

Another idea would have stripped the KDHE secretary of the authority to establish vaccine mandates through regulations.

Another would grant childhood exemptions for vaccines that aren't fully FDA approved. Such a provision would have no substantive effect because all youth wellness vaccines currently on the state's list are fully FDA approved — though it conceivably could block the COVID-19 vaccine from joining that list.

More: 'Back to normal' rewrites of public health laws pass Kansas Senate, but not with veto-proof majorities

Court effort targeted school vaccine mandates

In June, the Kansas Court of Appeals tossed a case challenging childhood vaccination requirements from a Christian family that refuses to ask for religious exemptions.

The Johnson County couple sued over vaccine mandates to attend school and day care, claiming that the existing religious exemption in state law was not enough to protect their religious liberty.

The court disagreed, saying the family misinterpreted the law, refused to request exemptions and continued to pursue the legal challenge even as their unvaccinated grandchild was allowed to attend public school.

The lawsuit from Stilwell attorney Linus Baker and his wife, Terri Baker, was first filed in Shawnee County District Court in 2020 against KDHE's then-secretary Lee Norman. Also named as defendants were Kelly and Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

Schmidt, now the Republican nominee to challenge Kelly in November's gubernatorial election, opined in 2012 that school vaccine mandates do not violate the state constitution. He further indicated that compulsory vaccinations are "a valid exercise of state police power" and the state isn't legally obligated to offer religious exemptions.

Jason Tidd is a statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @Jason_Tidd.

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Low uptake of COVID vaccine for under age 5 troubles Kansas doctors