The Media Today

The head-spinning coverage of COVID vaccines for the youngest

July 1, 2022
Shivani Agarwal, left, sits with her daughter daughter Kiran, 3, during the observation period after Kiran was inoculated with the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for children 6 months through 4 years old, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at Montefiore Medical Group in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

On Tuesday, Louie the Muppet took advantage of the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to authorize covid vaccines for children under the age of five by taking his son Elmo—who is three and a half years old, today and every day since the early 1980s—to get a shot. “I had a lot of questions about Elmo getting the covid vaccine: Was it safe? Was it the right decision?” Louie confided to the Sesame Street camera, as Elmo ran off to search for Baby David, his doll. “I talked to our pediatrician so that I could make the right choice.” Many viewers seemed to appreciate Louie’s example, but one, in particular, did not: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who accused Elmo of “aggressively advocating” that young children get the vaccine despite having cited “ZERO scientific evidence” of its benefits.

Unbelievably—and, yet, unsurprisingly—this was the second time Cruz had taken issue with a Muppet getting vaccinated. As with the first occasion—when Cruz accused Big Bird of spreading “government propaganda,” prompting Saturday Night Live to stage a fictionalized meeting between the two on a channel called Newsmax Kids—Cruz’s reaction was mined for content, including by a bevy of major news outlets. Much of this was appropriately tongue-in-cheek. Yet it also spoke, collectively, to a serious problem that journalists have had to grapple with throughout the pandemic, and the story of vaccines for very young kids has been a particularly sensitive recent example. Like Louie, many parents have legitimate questions. But experts—and, by extension, the press—haven’t always had easy answers in a climate of constantly evolving science. And actors like Cruz have been all too willing to step in and politicize the resulting uncertainty.

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Many journalists, of course, have young kids themselves. Betsy Morais, CJR’s managing editor, became pregnant during the pandemic and gave birth late last year. She knew that she wanted to get her baby vaccinated against covid as soon as possible, but often found the news coverage to be lacking. For a special holiday-weekend edition of this newsletter, I spoke to Betsy about her experience navigating the reporting and getting her baby vaccinated. You can read our conversation below. (A quick programming note from me: we’ll be off Monday for July 4. See you all on Tuesday.)

JA: You became pregnant during the pandemic. When was the first time you remember thinking about the possibility of getting your baby vaccinated against covid?

BM: I was first focused on my own vaccination. Pregnant people were offered covid shots earlier than the general population, but my timing didn’t quite work out. I had bad morning sickness; my doctor advised that I wait until my second trimester. At the time, there was a lot of confusion (the World Health Organization hemmed and hawed) and misinformation (vaccines causing infertility being a particularly egregious example). I knew I wanted to be vaccinated—for myself and for the health of the baby. I read about early studies showing that, by getting vaccinated, I could pass on immunity in utero and through breastmilk. I figured the baby would eventually get vaccinated against covid—babies get all sorts of vaccinations in the United States, as a matter of course. But I was taking one step at a time.

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How did you set about doing the research into your options and making a decision? And what did that feel like? 

For months, I’d read covid coverage in the New York Times obsessively. I read the Washington Post, CNN, and whatever else had new information. My friend Helen Ouyang, an emergency room doctor and wonderful writer, published a devastating piece back in April 2020 that rattled in my brain. My friend Jim Hamblin was writing wise and helpful pieces for The Atlantic, including about the urgency of vaccinating children; he is also a doctor, and my husband and I had a few long conversations with him. Like everyone, I became an Ed Yong fangirl. And when I was pregnant, I embarked on a nine-month research project, of a kind—aware all the while that actual knowledge of having and raising a baby is ultimately impossible until you’re there. I found myself leading a strange double existence of deepened understanding and profound ignorance.

Information about vaccines for the youngest children arose amid everything else. It always appeared foggy. Last September, a couple months before my due date, the CEO of Pfizer said that vaccine data for kids aged two to four would come “before the end of the year”; the expectation was that shots could be available in early 2022. That timeline got pushed back. In January, Anthony Fauci said he hoped the FDA would approve vaccines for kids under five within the next month. That didn’t happen. In March, ProPublica published a piece asking “What’s Holding Up the covid Vaccines for Children Under 5?” Two experts said they expected “authorization by April or, in a worst-case scenario, May.” That prediction was wrong. In April, David Leonhardt wrote for the Times on the wait and uncertainty: “Sometimes, the confusion has been intentional: Officials haven’t trusted Americans with the truth. Other times, the confusion has been an accidental byproduct of a messy public-health bureaucracy where no one person has responsibility for delivering clear messages to the public.”

I tend to place great trust in doctors, in the same way that I defer to anyone with expertise. The most disorienting moments for me may have been ones in which I’ve spoken with doctors and they’ve replied, kindly and honestly, “We don’t know.” But of course, that happens all the time in medicine—and that doesn’t diminish the value of science, it underscores it. I have tried to be patient and accept that I won’t know things. Which, to answer your question, means that my “research” has felt slow and spotty.

Were there any other ways in which media coverage played into your research? 

I depend on journalism to help me make decisions. The Times’ covid tracker has been an essential resource. But I never needed a newspaper article to tell me that I should vaccinate my baby against covid. That was a conclusion I reached just from living through the past two years.

I find it validating when journalists demand answers to questions. But in terms of research that I could put into action, there wasn’t all that much to read until data appeared. And even then, I had to maintain some skepticism, because numbers can be misleading—they can convey a false sense of certainty. The most helpful article I found, when trying to make a choice between Pfizer or Moderna, was a piece by Helen Branswell and Matthew Herper, for Stat.

Did you have any frustrations with the coverage?

I’ve been frustrated by the lack of clarity in news coverage. I see articles with headlines like: “Vaccines for Young Children Are Coming, but Many Parents Have Tough Questions.” The frame of that piece was hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their very young children; it reflected doubt and fear. What I wanted was simple, straightforward guidance.

Looking at the data, presented in slightly different ways in slightly different articles, made my head spin. NBC reported, “Pfizer’s vaccine reduced the risk of symptomatic infection by 80% in children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years.” CNBC reported, “Preliminary data does give the protection edge to Pfizer: Roughly 75% effectiveness at preventing illness from omicron for children aged 6 months to 2 years” and “for children ages 2 to 4, Pfizer’s vaccines were around 82% effective against omicron.” Often, numbers are presented in limited context, and of course news articles are not medical-journal papers. But how meaningful is any given data point absent the size of the test group, or the duration of the test? Is this information helping nonscientists make informed decisions? (Maybe I am just tired, because my seven-month-old is going through a sleep regression.)

As I’ve written many times, the pandemic has been weird for the press in the sense that we’ve all had to navigate scientific uncertainty together in a very public and immediate way. You can turn to an expert for their input but they might not have the answers, and/or might totally disagree with another expert’s read of things, reasonably or not. It seems like we’re still navigating that same uncertainty more than two years in, doesn’t it? 

My family has been fortunate in that we can easily reach out to experts we trust for guidance—especially last week, when we happened to have a doctor’s appointment to check my baby’s weight. The day we came in, the pediatrician’s office was ready to provide doses of the Pfizer vaccine to children under five. My husband and I asked lots of questions of the nurse and the doctor. (Do you have a preference between the two vaccines? What might be the most important factors to consider given that our baby is so young?) Ultimately, we decided to pass on Pfizer and go the next day to a city-run vaccination site offering Moderna, which promised greater protection faster; given our daycare plans, that was a priority for us.

A key function of the press is to serve as a mediator, to ask questions on behalf of the general population and disseminate answers. That can be very hard to do in circumstances where there is ambiguity—which is to say, nearly all circumstances. So yeah, journalism is hard work—and weird, as you say. Still, I do think it is possible to convey information—and even uncertainty—with clarity. Clarity is just so important. And I think in the rush to publish, it is too often overlooked. I’m speaking of factual clarity as well as moral clarity. (Which relates not only to vaccines, but everything—including what happens when, say, a police officer has killed a Black person.) There are good reasons to be skeptical of official decrees, and good reasons to defer to expert accounts; knowing how to parse all of that is a good journalist’s work. It will never end.

You finally took your baby for her vaccination last week, and it was the same day that the Supreme Court handed down its Roe decision. The covid and abortion stories are rarely explicitly linked, I feel like, but they’re actually super connected…

Very much so, because we’re talking about healthcare. We’re talking about making choices in the interest of someone’s well-being. We’re talking about bodies. It can feel overwhelming to process all of the news. It’s also quite simple—we all want to feel safe, and want our children to feel safe. The more we can be clear about how best to achieve that, I think, the better our journalism will be.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.