UTAH (ABC4) – The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to everyone 12 years old and up in Utah, and as more people get vaccinated, mask mandates have begun to lift and restrictions are easing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors, prompting many businesses to drop their mask requirements. Most businesses in Utah do not require proof of vaccination if a customer decides not to wear a mask.

But with all the moves to get things “back to normal,” one group seems to be left behind. Children below age 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to the virus.

Dr. Andrew Pavia is the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

“We often talk about how children are at lower risk of severe disease, but low doesn’t mean no risk,” Dr. Pavia says. “We’ve had, you know, well over 400 children hospitalized in Utah. We think we’ve had two deaths. Nationally, more than 300 kids have died… Probably what’s more important if you ask your child is what they don’t want is to get long COVID. They don’t want to be fatigued and failing out of their classes and unable to compete in their sports for several months…These annoying but life-changing side effects are a big deal.”

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 3,903,706 cases of COVID-19 in children have been reported in the United States as of May 13, 2021. Children made up between 6% and 19.4% of total state COVID-19 tests. In Utah, there have been 43,381 reported cases of COVID-19 in children.

In the beginning of the pandemic, children were not considered to be a vulnerable population, according to a blog post on Intermountain Healthcare’s website. And those who catch COVID-19 typically have mild symptoms.

“However, as medical professionals have become more familiar with this disease over the past several months, it is clear that children are susceptible to some potentially devastating side effects from COVID-19,” the blog post states.

And while the majority of serious COVID-19 cases and deaths have occurred in adults, children can experience not only ongoing COVID-19 symptoms, but Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome or MIS-C, a serious complication of the virus.

The blog post defines MIS-C as “a life-threatening condition that can affect a child’s heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and other organs” and affects a small portion of children infected with COVID-19.

“There’s this notion out there that kids can’t get really sick from COVID-19, and that’s just not true,” said Dr. Jason Lake, infectious disease doctor at University of Utah Health and Primary Children’s Hospital, says. “The scariest part is most kids we see with MIS-C are completely healthy with no pre-existing conditions.”

Primary Children’s Hospital has treated nearly 20 MIS-C cases since April, the blog post states, though that number could have risen since the post was written in December 2020.

MIS-C can cause similar symptoms as an autoimmune or autoinflammatory condition. It often affects the cardiovascular system. Common symptoms include fever, stomachache, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash.

Charla Haley, Public Information Officer with the Utah Department of Health, encourages parents to get their children who are 12 or older vaccinated in order to help stop the spread of the virus.

“Some children can get severely ill and require hospitalization when they get COVID-19,” Haley says. “We understand some parents want more information before getting their children vaccinated. We encourage parents who have questions to talk to their child’s healthcare provider or family doctor to learn more about the vaccine. And if your adolescent is behind on routinely recommended vaccines due to the pandemic or other reasons, now is a good time to work with your child’s doctor to make sure they get caught up.”

Dr. Andrew Pavia, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the University of Utah, agrees. He says getting teenagers vaccinated will play an important role in ending the pandemic.

This is “because we know that teenagers play an important role in transmission, and they may be okay, but they don’t want to infect their parents, their grandparents, other vulnerable people in the community. So this may mark a real turning point in our ability to get towards a high level of protection and drive cases down,” Dr. Pavia states.

For more information on MIS-C, visit intermountainhealthcare.org.