A mass COVID-19 vaccine clinic last week at the Flathead County fairgrounds for children ages 5 to 11 drew 233 kids to the holiday-themed event organized by the Flathead City-County Health Department.
Christmas music played over speakers, games and goodie bags were available for children after they got their shots, and movies like “Home Alone” played on a projector screen. Nurses and staff wore Santa hats, and dressed up in Christmas themed outfits, including Health Officer Joe Russell who wore a nametag declaring him the “Elf Officer.”
Outside, protesters were present, with some holding signs decrying germ theory, calling attendees sheep, or demanding an end to vaccine mandates. Protesters also stood by the entrance to the vaccine clinic and handed out anti-vaccine pamphlets. Police were present at the fairgrounds.
The presence of protesters was frustrating to Russell, as well as some parents in attendance.
“I just feel bad that they continue to think they’re going to change parents’ minds,” Russell said.
Whitefish resident Charlie Duffy was there to get his 10-year-old daughter Ayla vaccinated, something he said was less about protecting her and his family and more about protecting other people. He worries about the dangers the virus poses to others, including his 80-year-old mother. Part of the time she lives in Vermont, which has a 75% vaccination rate, and where mask wearing is commonplace. “She comes to visit us and there’s nobody masked, and half the population (42%) has been vaccinated, which makes me nervous to have her here with my kids,” Duffy said.
He said he hasn’t objected to her coming to visit. “She’s not worried about it any more than we are catching it and giving it to her. She feels like she’s done everything she can, and she’s being safe with a mask and a booster. And it’s just life, if it happens it happens. But again, if we can stop the transmission amongst the valley and community members, that’s the goal.”
For 10-year-old Jamie Murphy it boiled down to this: “It’s just a shot and it can save your life, so why not get 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 get their second vaccine dose.
Mackenzie Gress, a public health nurse, said that though some kids had nerves, the environment was a positive one and an improvement on the atmosphere seen at some of the mass flu clinics the health department has hosted. She noted that families were largely grateful. She heard parents telling their children that it was to protect their teachers, or grandparents, and in one instance a family was able to get their child with severe asthma vaccinated.
“In light of all the controversy that’s around it, sometimes you feel really unappreciated in all of that. In this environment you feel so incredibly appreciated,” she said, adding later that she thinks, “Sometimes the community doesn’t see this side. And I think there’s definitely a lot of negativity surrounding vaccines. And sometimes it feels like the overwhelming majority is against it.”
The mass clinic had been set up for a capacity of 600 appointments, Russell said in late November. After the vaccine was granted approval by both the CDC and FDA in late October and early November for children ages 5 to 11, demand was immediately high for a limited number of appointments, with some parents opting to drive to other communities, like Missoula, for an open slot.
At the time the health department began thinking about a mass vaccine clinic for children due the demand, but did not immediately roll one out because guidance from the CDC at the time pointed towards a clinical setting as the preferred approach to vaccinating young children, according to Russell.
Last month Russell said that he expected to continue to see a drive to 30% vaccination among children ages 5 to 11, before plateauing somewhere between 39% and 44%. That rough projection was done by looking at the vaccination rates for age groups in the county most likely to be parents of young children. There are about 6,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11 in Flathead County. Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services data as of Nov. 26 showed 4% of children ages 5 to 11 had received one COVID-19 vaccine dose in Flathead County.
Speaking last month, Logan Health Children’s Primary Care pediatrician Dr. John Cole said he was recommending parents get their children vaccinated, and that the vaccine is safe. Citing American Academy of Pediatrics data, Cole said 140,000 children have lost a caregiver to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. There’s also a risk for severe illness or death in children, and Cole said that over 65,000 children across the country have been hospitalized because of COVID-19 and, several hundred have died. Immunity from infection wanes over time, and so Cole said he recommends getting vaccinated even for children that have already been diagnosed.
“We just don’t know which kids are going to get really sick, and we don’t know which kids are going to die,” Cole said.
Cole said at the time that for the last few weeks Logan had seen about a case a week of multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, an illness known as MIS-C, which marked an increase from earlier in the pandemic.
“The big complication we see from MIS-C, which is one that children die from, is actually a heart attack basically, in a child,” Cole said. “These children with MISC-C are going to have long-term complications for the rest of their lives.”
He described it as “devastating” for parents to see a child get seriously ill. “Any time a family comes to the hospital with a child it’s the worst day of their life.”