Local parents struggle to find available pediatric COVID-19 vaccines amid U.S. shortage

A shortage of COVID-19 vaccines for young children has parents scrambling to find an available appointment.

As respiratory virus cases increase throughout Washington, according to health officials, parents said they’re concerned their children could get sick.

"It’s a really challenging time for parents trying to get their kids vaccinated," said Melissa Pelton, a mother of two in Seattle.

Public Health – Seattle & King County reported an uptick in emergency room visits of people diagnosed with the influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. Health officials said the COVID-19 transmission rate is low, but they are closely monitoring a possible rise in cases from Thanksgiving and holiday travel.

Parents said that the risk of more COVID cases is concerning since one of the most vulnerable populations is struggling to find a vaccine. Pelto said she has been trying to find an available appointment for her one-year-old daughter.

"We couldn’t find a booster for our one-year-old really anywhere in Seattle," said Pelto. "I actually had an appointment for today. But due to supply shortage, our appointment was canceled. So, we called Seattle Children’s and just said where can parents find vaccines right now? And he said it’s a real problem for both COVID boosters and for RSV vaccines."

The Pelto Family explained their daughter’s original appointment was scheduled with Virgina Mason Franciscan Health. Eric Wymore, Division Vice President – Pharmacy with VMFH, wrote in a statement, "The health system currently offers vaccine appointments for children, including those age 2 years and younger, and adults. Vaccine supply may vary depending on the location and those interested can contact their physician to learn more. VMFH continues to evaluate opportunities as more vaccine supply becomes available."

Since the distribution of the latest COVID-19 booster in September, Public Health – Seattle & King County said parents with children ages two-years-old and younger are struggling to find available shots.

"I know it’s really frustrating for families looking for a vaccine, especially when their primary care provider, pediatric office doesn’t have it. So, we’re really just encouraging them to be persistent," said Libby Page, immunization program manager at Public Health – Seattle & King County.

There are about 300 providers enrolled in the county health department’s Childhood Vaccine Program. Even with so many options to choose from, health officials said there’s reason for the vaccine shortage.

"What we found is that only about two-thirds of those clinics in King County have ordered pediatric COVID vaccine. And so, at Public Health, what we’re doing is reaching out to those clinics who have not yet ordered to remind them of their obligation to supply COVID vaccine and to order it and to provide them with technical assistance in support for ordering COVID vaccine for pediatric populations," said Page.

Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, explained one of the obstacles to increasing supply across the U.S. is the cost of the vaccine. During the pandemic, the government paid for everyone’s shots. Now it’s on health care providers to buy the vaccine, at an average cost of $120 per dose. Factor in the turn-around time for insurance claims, and buying just 100 doses becomes a significant financial burden for doctors. 

Seattle Children’s Hospital said it has not experienced a vaccine shortage. Officials wrote in a statement, "This fall, our policy at the hospital has been that we offer COVID-19 vaccines to our patients staying in the hospital or coming for a clinic visit, but we do not offer standalone appointments for COVID vaccines. Standalone appointments can be scheduled at the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic by calling 206-987-7210."

To supplement the gaps in accessing vaccines, the county and state are offering more community clinics. In terms of which brand will be available by time of appointment, the Washington State Department of Health is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The recommendations are that they stay with the same brand of COVID-19 vaccine. But if they are at a provider’s office or at an appointment and that brand is not available, they can be vaccinated with a different brand. So, that is allowable per CDC guidance and hopefully helps to reduce some barriers for families," said Heather Drummond, COVID-19 vaccine director at Washington State Department of Health.

Public Health – Seattle & King County is offering free weekly vaccine clinics in Kent and the Snoqualmie Valley, available for anyone six-months-old and up. The department also hosts community clinics periodically, including a clinic in Auburn on November 29.

Washington State Department of Health offers a vaccine appointment locator tool on its website. DOH also provides free mobile vaccine clinics through its Care-A-Van program for anyone six-months-old and up. Drummond said the vaccine supply is increasing across the state, and should improve access for those still needing their dose.

"Families with children under two will generally need to schedule vaccines with healthcare providers as many pharmacies across Washington state are unable to vaccinate children under three," said Drummond.

VMFH also advised the public to call 1-833-VAX-HELP (1-833-829-4357) to find appointments.

Pelto said her seven-year-old son has updated vaccinations. She said as frustrating as her daughter’s appointment cancelation was, she will make time to find the next available vaccine for her baby girl.

"As a working parent, you only have so many hours in the day to get stuff done," said Pelto. "But with the holidays approaching and just the risk of travel, if it comes down to it, I would go outside of Seattle."