A massive COVID-19 vaccine clinic last week at the Flathead County fairgrounds for children ages 5 to 11 drew 233 children to the holiday-themed event hosted by the Flathead City-County Health Department.
Christmas music played through speakers, games and goodie bags were available to children after they took their photos, and movies like “Home Alone” played on a projection screen. Nurses and staff wore Santa hats and dressed in Christmas outfits, including health officer Joe Russell who wore a name tag calling him the “Elf Officer.”
Protesters were outside, with some holding signs denouncing the germ theory, calling those in attendance sheep or demanding an end to vaccine mandates. Protesters also stood at the entrance to the vaccine clinic, handing out anti-vaccination brochures. Police were present at the fairgrounds.
The presence of protesters was frustrating for Russell, as well as some of the parents present.
“I just feel bad that they keep thinking they’re going to change their minds with parents,” Russell said.
Whitefish resident Charlie Duffy was there to get his 10-year-old daughter Ayla vaccinated, which he says was less about protecting her and his family and more about protecting other people. He is concerned about the dangers the virus poses to others, including his 80-year-old mother. She lives part of the time in Vermont, which has a 75% vaccination rate and wearing masks is the order of the day. “She comes to visit us and no one is masked, and half the population (42%) is vaccinated, which makes me nervous to have her here with my kids,” Duffy said.
He said he has no objection to her coming to visit. “She doesn’t worry about it any more than we catch it and give it to her. She feels like she did everything she could and that she is safe with a mask and booster. And it’s just life, when it happens, it happens. But again, if we can stop the transmission between the valley and the community members, that’s the goal.”
For 10-year-old Jamie Murphy, it came down to this: “It’s just one shot and it could save your life, so why not take it?” Jamie lives in Kalispell and was accompanied by her mother Minh-Ha and her 8-year-old sister McKala. Both sisters were there to receive their second vaccine dose.
Mackenzie Gress, a public health nurse, said that while some of the children had nerves, the environment was positive and an improvement over the atmosphere seen in some of the massive flu clinics the health department has hosted. She noted that the families were largely grateful. She heard parents tell their children it was to protect their teachers or grandparents, and in one case, a family was able to have their child vaccinated with severe asthma.
“In light of all the controversy surrounding it, sometimes you really feel unappreciated in all of that. You feel so incredibly valued in this environment,” she said, later adding that she thinks, “Sometimes the community doesn’t see this side. And I think there’s definitely a lot of negativity around vaccines. And sometimes it feels like the vast majority is against it.”
The mass clinic was set up for a capacity of 600 appointments, Russell said in late November. After the vaccine was approved by both the CDC and the FDA for children ages 5 to 11 in late October and early November, there was immediate demand for limited appointments, with some parents choosing to drive to other communities, such as Missoula. , for an open slot.
At the time, the health department began thinking about a massive pediatric vaccine clinic because of demand, but didn’t roll one out right away because CDC guidance at the time pointed to a clinical setting as the preferred approach to vaccinating young children, according to Russell. .
Last month, Russell said he expected to continue pushing for 30% vaccination in children aged 5 to 11, before stabilizing somewhere between 39% and 44%. That rough projection was made by looking at vaccination coverage for age groups in the county most likely to be parents of young children. There are approximately 6,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11 in Flathead County. Data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services on Nov. 26 showed that 4% of children ages 5 to 11 had received one COVID-19 vaccine dose in Flathead County.
Last month, Logan Health Children’s Primary Care pediatrician Dr. John Cole that he recommended that parents get their children vaccinated and that the vaccine is safe. Citing data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Cole said 140,000 children have lost a caregiver to COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. There is also a risk of serious illness or death in children, and Cole said more than 65,000 children across the country have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 and hundreds have died. Immunity to infection wanes over time, which is why Cole said he recommends getting vaccinated, even for children who have already been diagnosed.
“We just don’t know which kids are really going to get sick, and we don’t know which kids are going to die,” Cole said.
Cole said at the time that Logan had seen about a week of childhood multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a disease known as MIS-C, which marked an increase from earlier in the pandemic.
“The big complication that we see with MIS-C, which kills children, is actually a heart attack in a child,” Cole said. “These children with MISC-C will have long-term complications for the rest of their lives.”
He described it as “devastating” for parents to see a child become seriously ill. “Every time a family with a child comes to the hospital, it’s the worst day of their lives.”