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COVID-19

Without a state-led vaccine campaign, experts worry fewer 5- to 11-year-olds will get a COVID shot

Filing COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card by CDC.
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Public health and medical experts worry 5- to 11-year-olds will also lag behind national vaccination rates in the absence of a coordinated vaccination campaign targeting skeptical parents in Montana.

Kids 5 to 11 years old are now eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine after federal regulators gave the final green light on Tuesday. But public health and medical experts worry not enough kids in Montana will get the shot in the absence of a state-led campaign aimed at parents who are on the fence.

Former top state health department epidemiologist Jim Murphy said under former Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration, he and other state health officials began preliminary work with the governor's office on vaccination campaigns after the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was approved for people 16 and older.

“And those plans did include some promotion of the vaccine for the teenagers that were eligible,” Murphy said. 

But Murphy says the Gianforte administration never dusted off those early plans once it took office in January. This spring, Murphy and other officials began drafting ads promoting vaccines for kids 12 and older ahead of their approval in May, but Murphy said Gianforte’s office scrubbed all references to kids.

“The word that our team got was that those scripts were being revised," Murphy said, "and we wouldn’t be directly promoting teen vaccination for COVID from the state level."

Murphy retired from the health department at the end of June, but he says this opposition to promoting vaccines for kids has continued. He points out that the state’s COVID vaccine ads still lack specific promotion for children as evidence of that.

About 55% of eligible Montanans are fully vaccinated and roughly 40% of eligible kids 12 to 17 years old have received both of their shots, according to state data. Both of those figures lag behind national averages.

In a written statement, Gianforte spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said that Murphy wasn’t involved in the creation of ads for COVID vaccines under the Gianforte administration.

Murphy disputed that assertion, saying many divisions within the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, including the communicable disease and laboratory sections under his watch, helped craft vaccine public service announcements sent to Gianforte’s office.

During a recent press conference, Gianforte did not say whether his administration had plans to promote shots for currently eligible kids and an estimated 90,000 children 5 to 11 years old in Montana.

“We will have to see what guidance we get from that accompanies the approval and we’ll make decisions based on that,” Gianforte said.

In a later statement, Stroyke said that Gianforte encourages parents to talk to their health care providers about getting their children vaccinated against COVID-19, and said DPHHS will continue to revise its vaccine awareness campaign, but did not say whether the state would promote vaccines for kids.

About 55% of eligible Montanans are fully vaccinated and roughly 40% of eligible kids 12 to 17 years old have received both of their jabs, according to state data. Both of those figures lag behind national averages.

Public health and medical experts worry 5- to 11-year-olds will also lag behind national vaccination rates in the absence of a coordinated vaccination campaign targeting skeptical parents in Montana.

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Https://Dphhs.Mt.Gov/Publichealth/Cdepi/Diseases/CoronavirusMT/Index
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A screenshot from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services website captured 11/02/21.

Hayley Devlin, spokesperson for the Missoula City-County Health Department, said typically it’s the state health department that creates content for public health campaigns, and county health departments disseminate those materials.

“We haven’t received any promotional materials from DPHHS as far as encouraging child vaccinations goes,” Devlin said.

In the absence of state-created vaccine promotion for kids, Devlin has spearheaded the launch of the health department’s own COVID vaccination campaign for parents and kids.

But smaller county or tribal health departments don’t have the staff or funding for those kinds of education campaigns, said Matt Kelley, CEO of the Montana Public Health Institute.

“We’re working to find ways to help them increase their capacity by helping to provide some of that messaging, but also building their own skill sets so they can do it themselves,” he said.

"Any parent knows how much crud comes home with kids when sick season hits in the winter. COVID is no exception to that.”

Kelley said the health institute is working with the CDC Foundation to get free support from an advertising specialist to craft some of that messaging. The Montana Medical Association is also launching its own statewide campaign to educate kids and their parents about vaccines.

Kelley said finding effective messages that boost vaccine uptake among kids, especially younger ones, is particularly important ahead of the winter.

“Any parent knows how much crud comes home with kids when sick season hits in the winter," he said. "COVID is no exception to that.”

Jen Kates, the vice president and director of Global Health and HIV Policy at Kaiser Family Foundation, said nationally, parents’ feelings about getting their younger children vaccinated are similar to when shots were approved for teenagers.

“About a third of parents say they’re ready to go, rush out and get their kid vaccinated as soon as it’s authorized," she said, "and then everybody else — there’s a lot of wait-and-sees."

Kates said this wait-and-see crowd makes up another third, and the remaining third of parents say they won’t get their younger children vaccinated.

Kates said for kids 12 to 15 years old, those wait-and-see parents largely decided to get their kids vaccinated once their questions were answered. She said it will be important for pediatricians to be ready to answer parents’ questions.

President of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics Dr. John Cole said many parents in his office have decided to get their teenagers vaccinated after he answers their questions. Cole and his members plan to take the same approach with younger children.

“The key for the general public is we need a consistent message," he said.

"And when we’re hearing silence or not much of a message from the state level, I think that breeds a sense of nervousness or insecurity about the vaccine."

Cole said that consistent messaging is going to be the most effective for the people of Montana. He says we need more kids to get vaccinated to reduce disruptions to in-person learning, and spread to vulnerable family members at home.