With Mother's Day approaching, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is launching a public education campaign surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations aimed at addressing the needs and concerns of moms in particular. To promote President Biden's latest goal for 70 percent of the nation's adult population to have at least one vaccine shot by July 4, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Yale School of Medicine and the senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team, is working overtime to spread the message that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. As a mom to three – an 11-year-old and twin 7-year-olds – she is acutely aware of the power a mother has in protecting her family.
"Mothers are typically the primary health decision maker for their family. This was true before the pandemic and it's certainly true now."
"For so many of us as moms, it's such a hopeful moment," she told POPSUGAR. "We all want to spend time with our families. We want to hug our moms and our sisters and our grandmothers and our aunts and not be worried about getting sick or making them sick."
In order to help create a foundation of vaccine confidence for mothers who may have otherwise been hesitant to get vaccinated – or to get their children inoculated once available, which for adolescents may be as early as next week – Nunez-Smith spoke to us about the most common concerns she gets from parents and the ancillary benefits that come once vaccinated that they might not fully realize.
The Role Mothers Have In Increasing COVID-19 Vaccinations
The HHS's latest vaccine push hopes to partner with moms for the same reason so many health-related campaigns have historically targeted mothers. "Mothers are typically the primary health decision maker for their family," Nunez-Smith said. "This was true before the pandemic and it's certainly true now – that a lot of a mom's energy and effort every day is toward how to keep her family healthy and safe. And, honestly, that they want to reclaim their joy and be with people, but they want to do it responsibly."
In her work on the COVID-19 task force, she is in conversation with citizens daily, and based on those exchanges, chief among her concerns is the spread of false information aimed to mislead.
"There is so much misinformation out there, and sadly a lot of it is targeted directly at moms," she said. "We want to acknowledge that and make sure that in addition to knowing the vaccines are effective and safe, that we're also having that dialogue and discourse so that moms in particular are connecting with trusted information sources who can provide them with accurate information."
In addition to touting that getting vaccinated is "easy, convenient, and free for everyone," she wants to make sure mothers understand its effectiveness and that "hundreds of millions of folks have been vaccinated safely."
The Roadblocks Mothers Have In Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine
Among the key obstacles keeping women from getting vaccinated, Nunez-Smith, said, is fears surrounding those trying to conceive and those who are pregnant.
Will It Negatively Affect My Fertility?
"We talk a fair amount about fertility," she said. "Some people are still working on growing their families and wanting to know if getting the vaccination carries any sort of risk regarding fertility. I'm always really happy to be able to answer that and say there's just no evidence of that whatsoever and that actually we are unaware of any vaccination that has any effect on fertility."
Will It Harm My Pregnancy?
The recommendation for pregnant people, she said, is that they should get vaccinated. "But more importantly, they should be talking to their doctors and thinking about what's best for their baby. I can speak to data and the evidence, and all the initial data don't raise any safety concerns for people who are pregnant in terms of getting vaccinated. What I say to moms, and this is true for pregnancy, too, is the risk of getting sick from COVID-19 is a really great risk. Early on, we heard people say 'I don't know, maybe I'll just wait and see how it goes, but it's too inconsistent and unfortunately we are seeing younger folks coming into the hospitals now, with the potential for some of those lingering, debilitating symptoms. All of that we can avoid with vaccinations."
Why Can't I Just Wait and See How It Goes?
Nunez-Smith wants to express a sense of urgency in those waiting to get vaccinated. "Sometimes people will say, 'I'll think about it . . . maybe six months from now,' and I want to provide the context for people that we are in a race," she said. "The faster we can get more people vaccinated, the better our chances of winning the race and winning the war. Every time the virus gets the chance to skip from one person to another, it has a chance to mutate, to reiterate. I know variants are top of mind for people, so that brings another layer of the urgency. So if you have questions, let's get the information you need now so that you are able to make this decision in real time."
Why Are Things Moving So Fast?
Early on in the pandemic, a viable vaccine seemed impossibly out of reach, and now, all Americans over the age of 16 are eligible, adolescents ages 12-15 may receive clearance in the coming week, and there are talks of early childhood vaccinations coming as soon as September. Nunez-Smith gets a lot of moms asking about this.
"People think, 'Oh my gosh, things are moving really quickly' or 'this is all happening so fast,'" she said. "I just provide reassurance that in terms of mRNA vaccine development itself, it's actually been decades. We're talking about 20 years that scientists have been working on this technology at this platform, so the science hasn't been quick. Of course, we haven't had a pandemic like this so having everybody focused 24/7 on this allowed for that acceleration, but no steps were skipped, none at all. And they're not being skipped for the kids. And the Food and Drug Administration consists of independent scientists who are rigorously reviewing the data – with no politics involved at all – before making any recommendations on emergency use. It's just scientists looking at science. So when I talk to other moms, it provides them great reassurance. It builds confidence that we have processes that are working really well."
Why Get My Kids Vaccinated When They Aren't at Risk?
Nunez-Smith always tells people the two key reasons we vaccinate are to protect the person getting vaccinated and also to protect those in the community around the person getting vaccinated. However, many concerned parents with vaccine fears don't feel it's a necessity for their otherwise healthy children who are at low risk of developing serious complications from a COVID-19 diagnosis. "Let us not fall prey to this notion that children can't get it or children only get it where it's very mild," she countered. "That is not the case. Don't think this isn't a condition that affects children because it can. Children who get COVID-19 can become very ill and can even die from it. So, No. 1, we want to keep our kids safe. It's frankly a gamble we do not have to take."
"Let us not fall prey to this notion that children can't get it or children only get it where it's very mild. That is not the case."
She also noted that the virus is "completely unpredictable" in terms of how each person reacts to being infected, children included. "This is something we have to keep saying because some people still think this is like the flu, and it's not." On the other side of that coin of keeping children themselves safe, she noted the many people who cannot get vaccinated due to underlying medical reasons: "We don't want our children or any of our community members to be at increased risk because our children are transmitting COVID-19, so it's thinking about both keeping our children safe and our community safe as reasons to vaccinate."
The Importance of Vaccinating Children In Ending COVID-19
Despite all of this positive reinforcement toward the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, a
. According to Kaiser Family Foundation COIVID-19 Vaccine Monitor data released on Thursday, an additional 32 percent said they would "wait and see" how the vaccine is working before getting their child inoculated. Among the remaining parents, 15 percent said they would only get their child vaccinated if their school required it, and 19 percent "definitely" will not give their children the vaccine.
Nunez-Smith wasn't surprised by these findings and noted that they are on track with "parental views about vaccinations in general" and actually follow a similar breakdown for adults willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine themselves. Regardless of the polling data, she wants the nation's mothers to focus on "rallying around" the nation's "really ambitious goal" of reaching that 70-percent benchmark.
"Those communities that get to 70 percent faster are going to be able to experience a whole different reality both in terms of threat and risk of illness but also in terms of what people are able to do."
"In our country of our size, even as we talk about our goal of 70 percent for the nation, I remind people that this is a very local phenomenon, it's a community phenomenon," she said. "And those communities that get to 70 percent faster are going to be able to experience a whole different reality both in terms of threat and risk of illness but also in terms of what people are able to do, whether it's gathering for worship or going to sports events or concerts, than those communities that have low rates of vaccination. So, we shouldn't leave it to somebody else. It's so tempting to say, 'Well, OK, I'll just let that other person do it.' This is a moment for us to show deep compassion to one another and to be really patriotic and say this is how we help our country move forward and move from response into recovery."
Although global concerns about reaching herd immunity – the threshold of vaccinated people needed in order to suppress the virus – abound, Nunez-Smith cautions putting too much emphasis on that concept as a nation.
"At the end of the day, it's about our local communities, and it's about reducing transmissions in our local communities," she said. "In a community where we have 20 percent of people vaccinated, it doesn't matter that there's a community one state over where 80 percent of people are vaccinated. My exposure and the exposure of my family has to do with the very local dynamic of transmission. So, part of the rationale for making sure our kids are protected and safe is about reducing community transmission. It absolutely is, so it's just critical that we make sure that the vaccination effort reaches everyone who is eligible when they are eligible."
The Added Benefits of Vaccinating Children Against COVID-19
On a personal level, Nunez-Smith hopes to appeal to mothers with additional benefits that come from the COVID-19 vaccine, both for getting it themselves and for getting their children inoculated once they are eligible to do so.
In addition to the two main reasons to vaccinate – protecting oneself and protecting others – she has found that vaccinating as an act of kindness and generosity provides a profound teachable moment for families.
"That's a conversation I have had with my 11-year-old, who's on the cusp of 12, and saying, 'This is what social responsibility looks like,'" she said. "I said, 'This is our part to help our society and to help our country. This is what we each do and it's our responsibility."
She also considers vaccinations to be another "key tool in that toolbox" parents have in raising children.
"The faster we can get more people vaccinated, the better our chances of winning the race and winning the war."
"Parents who are in the thick of it right now, they most often come to me concerned about the mental health of their children, about helping their children on their own social-emotional development journey," Nunez-Smith said. "Vaccinations are how we begin to get our kids back connected, whether we are talking about in-person school or some of those after-school activities, be it sports or play dates or vacations. I remind everyone that vaccinations are a way to address that and we shouldn't lose sight of that benefit. It's really allowing our children to experience their best childhood."
She added: "I'm really inspired by the next generations. They really get it. They anchor themselves in community, and they are missing a lot of their lives and want to connect with it and are motivated in that way."
Not only that, for many school-aged kids who are aware of the realities of the coronavirus, vaccines – like masks – are a way to help them feel protected themselves.
"They will feel less afraid, and that's key," she said. "It's the same for my kids. They say, 'I'm keeping my mask on' when there's a lot of people at the playground, and they totally know. They know I've been vaccinated, and they are trying to understand what that means by asking if I can do things that they can't do and when we can do things together as a family."
Nunez-Smith isn't alone in considering parents to be "deep, deep heroes" of this pandemic, but she hopes the HHS's Mother's Day campaign will remind them of the role they can play right now. "Let's make sure the record is set straight, so that we have an opportunity to get closer to what we know as normal for ourselves but also for our children. And, truly for our entire community."