In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the next round of COVID shots for everyone 6 months and older. Doses were supposed to be available that day in pharmacies and doctor’s offices across the country.
Why Is Finding COVID Shots For Young Children Still So Hard?
But more than a month later, the smaller-dosage pediatric COVID shots for children 6 months to 11 years old are still difficult to find. A confluence of problems — from technicalities about who can give shots to small kids, to the lack of accurate information online on where kid-sized doses can be found — is still preventing parents from making sure their children are protected.
“Nobody has accurate information on where doses actually exist. It’s just an absolute logistical mess trying to find information and it was driving me insane,” said Anne Hamilton of Sunland, who searched for weeks to find a pediatric dose for her 4-year-old son, Jimmy.
Hamilton checked first with her son’s doctor. The website was only offering vaccine appointments for adults.
“The pop-up [on the website] says ‘new vaccines are expected in late September, try again later.’ Well that’s a frustrating message to read when it’s October, and they’re not giving you any other information,” she said.
One problem that has caused headaches for parents has been trying to find doses covered by their insurance. At the height of the pandemic, the federal government purchased the vaccines and made them free to consumers. Now, pharmacies and doctors have to buy the vaccines from suppliers. Since the government is no longer giving the shots away for free, most people need to use their health insurance to pay for them — and that can be complicated.
After days searching online and many false leads, Hamilton finally found a pharmacy over an hour away in Palmdale with pediatric doses. She called to make sure they actually had the shots and accepted MediCal, her son’s government insurance. After being assured of both, they made the hour-long drive. But when they arrived, the pharmacist couldn’t give Jimmy the shot because he was under 18 years old. Hamilton called MediCal to clarify.
“The MediCal phone representative explained to us that they need to go through the Vaccine For Children Program,” she said. “So we’re like, alright, we don’t know what this program is.”
You found pediatric vaccine? I can’t believe it.
— Anne Hamilton, summarizing another parent’s surprise
Hamilton’s son could only get a shot under the federal government’s Vaccines For Children program from a participating provider.
“Nobody put out the information that children on MediCal needed to be vaccinated through the Vaccines for Children program. Nobody has information on how to find a pop-up [clinic] near you because half of those aren’t even listed on the MyTurn.gov page,” she said, citing the state vaccine appointment website.
She was directed to a California-run website that was supposed to show Vaccines For Children providers across the state.
“The website just flat out doesn’t work,” Hamilton said.
Frustrated, she emailed the California Department of Public Health, which told her they were aware the website was down and that “IT was working on it.” No one from CDPH offered to help Hamilton or direct her to the provider list she needed.
After LAist asked CDPH why the Vaccine for Children’s Google-enabled map was not working, the website was fixed. However, it only shows participating providers, while neglecting to indicate if those doctors and pharmacies have pediatric COVID vaccine in stock. Parents either have to call each one individually to see if they’re taking patients and have the shot, or try to cross reference with the federal vaccines.gov website.
Hamilton was left in tears of frustration.
“I know parents all over the country who are looking for doses. It’s a hunt for everyone right now,” she said.
What if my kid’s doctor doesn’t have the shot?
There are two parallel vaccine systems in the U.S., and where you fit depends on what kind of insurance you have. Children with commercial health insurance get vaccines through the commercial market. But kids with government insurance such as MediCal get shots through the federally funded Vaccines for Children program — and only participating providers, like Orange County pediatrician Eric Ball, can give them the shot.
Under the Vaccines For Children program, “we actually place an order, the vaccines come to us, the government has paid for them already, and then we distribute them to patients who have those insurances for free,” Ball said.
Health officials routinely direct parents first to their pediatrician’s office. But Ball said many pediatricians aren’t stocking or administering the COVID shot because they can’t afford to.
“A lot of pediatric practices are small businesses and this means we have to expend a lot of money up front to be able to buy these vaccines and then wait weeks or months to get that recouped,” he said.
That makes finding the pediatric dose harder for parents of small children because fewer people can vaccinate them. Pharmacists can only vaccinate children 3 years and older under a temporary federal law. That leaves out young children between 6 months and 3 years old, who have to see a doctor.
“We have a very long list in our office of families who are waiting for the day that our COVID vaccines come in so we can finally start vaccinating them. There’s been a lot of frustration,” Ball said.
Ball participates in both systems. His practice did receive some pediatric doses through the federal program, but he can only administer them to qualifying patients. On the commercial side, it took over a month to get just 100 pediatric COVID doses. It’s not nearly enough.
“It’s a shame because we’ve had so many missed opportunities since this vaccine was approved over a month ago,” he said. “We’ve had lots of patients who come in who want to get their kids vaccinated, especially young children and babies who don’t have the protection of previous vaccines.”
Thousands of doses ordered, hundreds arrive
In neighboring Los Angeles County, St. John’s Community Health is totally dependent on the Vaccines for Children program for their shots. But president Jim Mangia says their orders are being cut.
“We ordered 3,000 (pediatric doses) last week, we got 500,” he said.
St. John’s provides care on a sliding scale to 50,000 low-income children in Los Angeles. Mangia said. St. John’s isn’t advertising the COVID vaccine or doing email or text blasts to spread the word because of the short supply.
“We’re basically holding back,” he said. “If someone asks for it, we’re providing the vaccine, but we’re not doing the level of outreach that we normally do to get people vaccinated because we don’t have enough supply yet.”
The Vaccines for Children program is run by the CDC. On a recent visit to Los Angeles, CDC Director Mandy Cohen said she’s not aware of any COVID vaccine supply or ordering issues.
“There’s no ordering caps, we’re hearing that folks are getting shipments within three or four weeks,” she said. “I will say personally my kid’s pediatrician has vaccines and has had a COVID vaccine clinic, so the vaccine is out there.”
In Sunland, Hamilton’s son Jimmy finally got the shot through a pop-up clinic run by L.A. County. She feels lucky to have found it.
“I told one of my friends that I was going to get my kids their shots and she said ‘You found pediatric vaccine? I can’t believe it,’” Hamilton said.
The only thing that hurts me worse than seeing a child get sick or hospitalized is them getting sick or hospitalized by something that I could have prevented.
— Dr. Eric Ball, Orange County pediatrician
A critical need as winter approaches
Pediatrician Eric Ball said he’s concerned what the slow rollout will mean for vulnerable babies and toddlers who are too young to have been vaccinated and need multiple shots before the predicted winter COVID surge.
“If we want to get these children vaccinated for gatherings such as Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, it’s critical that we start doing this now because this is not a one-and-done kind of situation,” he said. “We need these babies to get multiple doses over multiple weeks before they can be adequately protected.”
The same day Ball’s office finally received the pediatric vaccine, he got an email from a patient’s mother. Her 4-year-old tested positive for COVID. She had tried for weeks to get her son vaccinated, but no one had the shot.
“As a pediatrician, the only thing that hurts me worse than seeing a child get sick or hospitalized is them getting sick or hospitalized by something that I could have prevented. And if I don’t have the tools to prevent that, it hurts me and it’s very sad,” Ball said.
What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what’s working and what’s not in our health response.