Time for Flu Shots and COVID-19 Bivalent Boosters, But is Vaccine Access for Families an Issue?

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
    The annual fall push to get your flu shots is a little different this year. Pediatricians urge flu vaccines for kids, and now, for children ages five and up, they encourage another shot to be given at the same time. It’s the new COVID-19 bivalent booster, if they qualify.

    “Just like influenza every year, you’re going to get a COVID-19 booster unless something changes dramatically with this virus where people are not hospitalized all the time,” said Jason G. Newland, MD, M.Ed., pediatric infectious diseases physician and professor in the Department of Pediatrics’ Division of Infectious Diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.  He’s also vice chair of Community Health and Strategic Planning for the Department of Pediatrics.

    Dr. Newland suggests getting used to annual vaccines. He recommends that children ages five and up get the updated (bivalent) booster if they completed the primary vaccine series. They would have needed to receive their last shot of either the second COVID-19 vaccine or the original booster at least two months prior.

    Newland explained the bivalent COVID-19 boosters are important as they add Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 spike protein components to the current vaccine composition, helping to restore protection that has waned. The updated boosters target recent Omicron variants that are more transmissible and immune-evading. Side effects are similar to the original shots.

    “The side effects still are the same – sore arm, sometimes getting that fatigue, achy feeling within 24 hours. That usually is short-lived. Some people get fever. All of these are the systemic symptoms that we’ve seen.”

    Now that the message is out, it’s up to parents to get their kids vaccinated. For some, it’s a matter of finding the time and scheduling around potential downtime from those possible side effects.

    “I think the side effects associated with the COVID vaccine has really stopped some people because we live busy lives and our kids live busy lives. Our kids are always moving to the next accomplishment. Moving to the next thing, because that’s what we do. That’s just what we do,” said Newland.

    Scheduling can be challenging in the best of situations. Once families get that straight, Newland said they may have issues finding that one location that has the vaccines and boosters they seek for all age groups. Newland pointed out the booster dose for ages 5 to 11 is different than the dose for ages 12 and up.  And Newland said not all providers have them. It takes searching and managing. He said vaccine access is frustrating for him.

    “I will just say this. I think one of the biggest problems with our vaccine uptake is we don’t have the best access for it. I think people want to be vaccinated. It is not easy. You don’t even know if the practice has the vaccine to actually give them. Some of the practices don’t have it! Some say you have to go to CVS or Walgreens,” said Newland. “So if you’re a busy, working person living day-to-day with a big family, it’s not easy. That’s a problem. That’s an access problem. And to expect families to be able to do that when they’re ready to be vaccinated. We have to solve that. And I think that’s for all of vaccines. I think that’s for the influenza vaccine.”

    Newland emphasized, “It needs to be right there and available when you got everybody ready. It can’t be that I come to the pediatric office, or I come to the adult medicine office, and I got the whole family there and I have to turn away the adults or have to turn away the kids.”

    Newland knows first-hand through the community outreach group he manages that’s designed to deliver vaccines to people, where they live.

    “We’re out at a church in St. Louis city, and we’re trying to bring vaccines (to the community) saying, ‘Well, we only have adult doses,’” he recalled. “And I said this, ‘Guys, we’re going to have to get kid doses, this is driving me crazy.’ What doesn’t happen? They didn’t have school that day. We had three kids walk in with their family and they all ask, ‘Hey, can we get them vaccinated?’ And we had to say ‘No’.  We completely failed.”

    Newland is concerned for the families of the children who were turned away.

    “Are they gonna be able to go get it? Who knows, probably not. Because they’re trying to live day-to-day and make it work. To expect them to go to the CVS or Walgreens or the pediatrician or whoever, who might not even have it? It’s a system problem. It’s our healthcare system. It’s our community-based problem that we have to be more nimble and willing to go meet our community where the community is with everything that is required to give vaccines to a whole family. And that just doesn’t happen. We have to change that.”

    And if the process, at times, seems bothersome, Newland ­­­doesn’t want people to get discouraged because getting children vaccinated is important.

    “Number one, over 1,700 kids have died of COVID-19,” he stressed.

    While children are not at high risk for severe infection, the updated booster provides added protection. And it provides a layer of protection against Post-COVID or long COVID conditions that have a wide range of health problems affecting different systems in the body.

    “It (vaccination) does reduce long COVID. That data has been shown in adults,” Newland said.

    Newland said he believes data from studies will show the same results for children. And he said the updated booster shots for children have additional benefits for families by    offering some protection for older adults.

    “Especially grandparents. You want to see them during the holidays. I think your best bet for your grandparents, to keep them out of the hospital and have the best chance of that, is make sure the grandparents are vaccinated and make sure everyone around them is vaccinated.”