Wellstar’s Dr. Danny Branstetter talks about COVID vaccination for children

Dr Danny Branstetter headshot photoDr. Danny Branstetter (photo courtesy of Dr. Branstetter)

The Courier conducted an interview via Zoom with Dr. Danny Branstetter, an infectious disease specialist with Wellstar Health System. The focus of the interview was the recent FDA approval for children from six months through five years of age to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

The interview below was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about your role at Wellstar Health System

“I’m primarily an infectious disease physician seeing both inpatient and outpatient community members who have infectious diseases or fevers that may mimic infectious diseases.

“And at WellStar, during the COVID era that we are all experiencing, I have played a role in the COVID response to help with things from diagnosis to treatment, to long COVID, to research and therapies, and coordinating that with our public health officials, and the CDC and the system response.”

Tell us a little bit about why people in the five years and younger age group should get vaccinated

“One of the things that is important to realize is that Omicron and its sub-variants has hospitalized more youth and infants and children than any other time during the pandemic.

“So these sub-variants are having a greater impact in our youngest population than we saw in the early 2020s, which, you know, we’re thankful that we didn’t see a big impact there.

“But recently, that’s what we’ve been experiencing with Omicron.

“One of the important things to do is to provide those protections to prevent hospitalizations and severe complications. Children do get complications from COVID. They get multisystem inflammatory disorders, (which) is the most striking feature that we’ve learned about in our pediatric population.

“So vaccinations do help.

“It can’t eliminate complications 100 percent but it does help reduce the likelihood of severe complications.”

Talk a little bit about the safety of the vaccine for children, how safe is it? And how do the health professionals know about the safety?

“The safety data is equal to or better tolerated than in adults.

“It’s well tolerated, very well tolerated and safe in that pediatric and infant population. So that is really good news.

“And so how do we know that?

“It’s been extensively studied, and that is multiple, multiple trials.

“By multiple trials, I mean, multiple enrollees within those trials have looked at both a two-dose regimen and a three-dose regimen for Pfizer, and a two-dose regimen for Moderna.

“So we have a lot of experience with these vaccine platforms and vaccines against COVID-19. And at least three trials with multiple enrollees: several thousands in each one.”

What was the delay in rolling out the vaccine to this younger age group?

“If (I’m) understanding correctly from the NIH, they really focused on the majority of the population that were having severe hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

“So it was the older population. So that was number one.

“Number two is that we had to have a vaccine trial that was a lower dose, and enough infection. So as we went from surge to surge, we didn’t have enough infections in that study to show how efficacious it was.

“We had to study the effects of the variants from when they went from time point to time point to make sure that the efficacy based on the variant was there for the pediatrics.

“So they took their time to make sure they got it right, right dose, and make sure they got it right as far as the efficacy was on target for that population, even with the sub-variants that we’re currently having.

“The good news is it shows good protection against severe illness and death, even against the sub-variants of Omicron that we’re experiencing right now.”

How available is the vaccine at this point? Can a parent be reasonably certain that they can fairly easily set up an appointment and get their child vaccinated?

“I’ve heard zero issues with supply chain so far. So I’m not aware of any issues in getting a vaccine for those who want it.”

How can parents arrange for vaccination for their child?

“The first person I would start with is your pediatrician (who is) providing your infant and toddlers’ health care. Call them.

“They may have it available and know when to put it into their vaccine series that your child is currently going through for other vaccines as well.

“So they really can guide you the best.”

Are there any other things you’d like our readers to know?

“I think the other benefit to getting this population vaccinated is to control the spread within the community.

“The benefit of being able to keep the spread down protects everyone. That is a additional benefit of getting younger populations vaccinated.”

“The ability to protect infants and children from infection and sick days and having to find childcare and navigate that if they do come down with an illness. Vaccines shorten the duration of illnesses. So getting them back to their routine of life, which is so important, is also a benefit to vaccinating younger children.

“And then finally, I want to remind everyone in general that COVID is here to stay. So whatever we can do to protect ourselves from the complications we don’t want anyone to get.

“If anything we can do to prevent losing family members, particularly young children, but anyone in our community, that is going to be our goal and the striving factor with getting vaccinated.

“Are we still going to see infections, even if we vaccinate this population? The answer is yes. But that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal of the vaccine is not to prevent symptomatic infection, we’re still all of us are probably going to get COVID at some point in our lives, symptomatic or asymptomatic, it’s here to stay.

“We want people to be as healthy as possible with as little symptoms as possible. And what the vaccines are really good at and still good at against the sub-variants for all populations, now six months and above, is preventing those severe illnesses, hospitalizations, and death.

“And that’s why it’s so important to continue to stress the vaccine. Even though it’s here to stay, the vaccines are going to benefit us because we can’t predict which person is going to have a complication severe illness or death.

“Getting everyone protected is our goal. And that’s the message I really want people to really absorb. So that’s the importance of continuing to stay up to date on your boosters, and now that we have the ability to immunize our youngest population is to go ahead and get those vaccinated.”