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Why expert expects vaccines to ease the pandemic's mental health burden on kids

Posted at 4:17 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-29 18:42:29-05

RICHMOND, Va. — Indoor swimming at the YMCA and basketball sound like typical activities for kids, but some children haven't been able to enjoy them throughout the pandemic.

“One of the things on my son’s vaccine bucket list that he’s really excited about is bowling," parent Liz Thurman said.

The Henrico mother said she's been strict about what her children have been allowed to do since March 2020 in an effort to protect them from COVID-19. That means play dates and sports have been limited to outdoors only.

“Sometimes when they’ll ask to do something, I'll say, ‘Once you’re vaccinated, we can totally do that,'" she said.

Thurman said her eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter both received their second Pfizer shot over Thanksgiving break.

“It is such a relief. It is so wonderful," she said. "They’re going to be so happy to see friends and have more freedom again.”

The children are among the 158,049 children between the ages of five and 11 in Virginia who have received at least COVID vaccine.

About 22% of Virginia children between the ages of five and 11 have received at least one vaccine since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) approved the vaccine for those children earlier this month.

Thurman said she hoped the vaccine would not only significantly reduce their chances of her children catching the virus and getting sick, but also ease mental health burdens.

“I think there’s going to be a big boost to their mood," Thurman said.

Dr. Bela Sood, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU, said COVID-19 has caused consequential damage to the well-being of many kids.

“They've watched older people die, they have watched relatives suffer, they’ve watched parents get really bent out of shape," she said. “What it has done to children's mental health is why depression and anxiety have skyrocketed, and ED visits for these purposes have increased almost 30-fold.”

Sood said vaccinations can relieve some anxiety kids have about getting ill.

"I think there's a sense of protection, so there's bound to be sort of a normalizing of life as such, where you don't feel you're constantly sitting duck or something bad will happen to you," she explained.

She also said young children have a limited understanding of how they can get past the pandemic, but the vaccine makes it simpler for them to comprehend.

“It's a concrete sort of a symbol for how it will be easy for [them] to see [their] friends, it will be easy to do XYZ," Sood said.

Vaccinators, including Virginia Slattum, a nurse supervisor for the state health department's COVID vaccine team, said most children have handled the vaccination process well.

“How many young children I've seen come in who are ready for their shot prepared and are able to take it like most adults, I’m absolutely astonished," she said. “Children are championing that and being able to take control back over their lives again.”

For the Thurmans, taking control means crossing off items from that vaccine bucket list.

“The weekend after next, we’re going to head to the bowling alley," she said.

As of Monday, November 29, 2021, 88% of Virginia's adult population (18+) has been vaccinated with at least one dose of COVID vaccine.

The number dips to nearly 75% when the state's entire population is taken into account.