Wisconsin guardians frustrated over rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 5

CDC signed off on vaccines for ages 6 months and up over the weekend

A sign in the shape of an arrow says "Vaccines."
A sign points in the direction of a clinic where both flu and COVID-19 vaccines are being administered Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, at Franklin Middle School in Janesville, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Eliza Wills called 10 different pharmacies in the Madison area before finding a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her 4-year-old son, Deklen, at Fitchburg Family Pharmacy.

On Thursday, Deklen will join the nearly 385,000 children in Wisconsin under age 17 that have been vaccinated against the disease so far.

Wills said the hoops she had to jump through to schedule an appointment were beyond frustrating.

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“I was surprised that only one pharmacy had taken any proactive steps to prepare for this (Emergency Use Authorization) approval,” Wills said Tuesday. “A lot of places hadn’t even pre-ordered yet … and I was just completely shocked that nobody had any information to offer.”

Wills isn’t alone.

Over the last several days, parents and guardians in a statewide vaccine group on Facebook have expressed confusion and frustration over access to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for Wisconsin’s youngest and newly eligible residents. And some families have contracted the virus while waiting months for a vaccine that could have added a layer of protection.

But making the shots available isn’t like flipping a switch. The vaccine needs to arrive in the state. Vaccine administrators also need time to review the clinical guidelines, update their own policies and procedures and train staff, state and public health officials said Tuesday afternoon during a Wisconsin Department of Health Services briefing.

“Parents should expect a short delay in accessing the vaccine for their children as vaccinators take all the necessary steps to be properly informed and trained and begin receiving shipments of the vaccines. However, the COVID-19 vaccines for this age group will be available statewide through primary care providers, community health centers, vaccine clinics and pharmacies who elect to offer vaccines to these age groups,” a DHS spokesperson told WPR.

During the briefing, DHS Secretary Karen Timberlake suggested people visit vaccine.gov or dial 211 to find a free COVID-19 vaccine.

For eager parents, waiting and struggling to find appointments was difficult.

One parent ready to vaccinate their 2-year-old son reached out to Wisconsin Public Radio’s WHYsconsin. He said he’d vaccinate his son “as quickly as possible” after watching the vaccine be rolled out to other age groups and prevent serious illness.

“We want the best for our young child and want him to be as healthy as possible for a long life,” the parent wrote. “If we didn’t already understand how helpful these vaccines are, we would want to discuss with a trusted medical professional, including our child’s pediatrician and maybe even our own general physician.”

And while he’s ready to vaccinate his child, he’s frustrated with the fits and starts of the vaccines being approved for the country’s youngest children, calling the delay “shameful.”

“And now that we are crossing the finish line of the rollout, federal, state and local governments are bungling the deployment, with no obvious way to make an appointment despite entities like CDC and Wisconsin DHS having provided their approval. It is embarrassing that this wasn’t prepared during the months of advance notice that they had.”

Wills seconded those sentiments.

“This isn’t our first rodeo, right? I mean, we started with adults, and then we’ve had multiple ages, so they’ve had practice and opportunities to put a proactive plan in place,” she said. “But there were very few providers that did. And I think that has been incredibly frustrating.”

There have been several twists and turns when it comes to a vaccine for this age group as trials changed and evaluations were delayed. Then Friday advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommending the agency authorize the vaccines. On Saturday the two COVID-19 vaccines received the final stamp of approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As was the case for the vaccines for previous age groups, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has to wait for the CDC to release updated clinical guidance. Then, the state recommends the vaccine and updates its own guidelines that are shared with providers, so they have the information needed to vaccinate children in this age group.

Wisconsin pre-ordered 48,500 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines while the federal approval process was proceeding, according to DHS, and shipments began arriving Monday.

Not all pharmacies are offering COVID-19 vaccines to children under age 3. Those that are vaccinating children younger than 3 require prescriptions from a health care provider. This puts more work on other parts of the system, Smriti Khare, pediatrician at Children’s Wisconsin, said.

In the older age groups, the retail pharmacies really carried the weight of creating lots of appointments,” Khare said. “And in this age group, it might be a little bit different where you do actually have to make sure that the pharmacies are providing vaccines to the younger children.”

Susie Bice lives in Oconomowoc with her husband and three children, ages 6, 3 and 2. The parents and 6-year-old Elliot are fully vaccinated. Bice said she was relieved when the news broke Saturday.

But relief soon turned into frustration as she spent several days searching online and calling clinics, hospitals and the local public health department in search of vaccine appointments. Finally, she was able to book appointments for her two youngest children.

But they aren’t close to her home. The Bice family will travel to Infinity Pharmacy in Milwaukee for the appointments Wednesday — about 45 minutes away. She also needs to bring a prescription in order for Lulu, her 2-year-old, to get the shot.

Bice is willing to put in the extra time and effort to get her children vaccinated and thinks the roadblocks she hit could deter people who are on the fence about being vaccinated or vaccinating their children.

“I just keep thinking: They want people to get their kids vaccinated. They’re encouraging people to do it. But they sure do make it hard for people. So if somebody were on the fence or not really wanting to do it but may be willing, they’re not going to do it if they have to jump through all these hoops. It’s the people who are desperate to get it who are going to do this, but anybody else? It’s too much.”

In Wisconsin, about 295,000 children under 5 are now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to DHS. Roughly 18 million children under 5 across the United States are eligible to get the shots.

DHS “strongly recommend(s)” children 6 months and older get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to help protect them from severe complications of COVID-19 and help reduce the risk of spreading the disease to others.

The Moderna vaccine can be given as a two-dose primary series. The doses are given four weeks apart to children 6 months through 5 years of age. The Pfizer vaccine can be given as a three-dose primary series to children ages 6 months through 4 years. The first two doses are given three weeks apart, with the third eight weeks after the second.