3 min read.Updated: 27 Nov 2021, 06:28 PM ISTJimmy Vielkind, The Wall Street Journal
Drugstore vaccinators tell jokes and dress as superheroes to prevent a chorus of woeful cries breaking out among children now eligible for the jab
Pharmacies in the U.S. have aisles of bandages, cold medicine and toiletries. Now, expect to see aisles of screaming children.
Millions of children ages 5 to 11 are in line for Covid-19 vaccine shots, and many aren’t happy about it.
“These are not willing participants, for the most part," said Beverly Schaefer, owner of Katterman’s Sand Point Pharmacy in Seattle. She was one of the first pharmacists in the U.S. to give immunizations, and since 1996 has heard much tearful wailing and gnashing of teeth while delivering shots to children.
Dr. Schaefer and other pharmacists cite rule No. 1: Don’t let the kid see the needle. Second, be quick about it. Jokes and distraction also help.
Michele Belcher, the second-generation owner of Grants Pass Pharmacy in southern Oregon, has empathy from her own childhood fear of injections. She found ice cream and old-fashioned fountain drinks a tested remedy. “I haven’t had an instance where the tears didn’t quickly stop," she said.
Sometimes parents are the pain. “The thing that frosts my cookies is, after we’ve wrestled a kid to the ground, is when the parent says, ‘You’re so great. We’ll buy you a treat in the store,’ " Dr. Schaefer said.
All pharmacists receive 20 hours of training on inoculations during their standard six-year course of study, said Darren Grabe, a professor at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in New York. But not all are eager to jab young, frightened patients.
“You’re sticking them with a pointy object in their arm. That’s always scary, and it may be difficult," Dr. Grabe said. “Pharmacists are going to range just like nurses range—some are better at it."
Mayank Amin, owner of the Skippack Pharmacy outside of Philadelphia, must rank near the top. He said he had a child crying for 30 minutes during the first days of pediatric Covid-19 vaccination. The sad scene gave him ideas for how best to stage a large-scale vaccination clinic.
He organized one at a nearby school earlier this month and gave each child a color-coded wristband, based on what parents said about the likelihood of their children throwing a fit. The screamers were directed to a “VIP lounge."
“Even if they scream and cry, it doesn’t scare the bejeebies out of the others," said Dr. Amin, who has a side business planning weddings.
The clinic featured live music and jugglers, and the vaccinators wore superhero capes. The post-shot waiting room had a librarian reading stories, a magician and the chance to write a thank-you note to vaccine developers.
Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania and New York were among 22 states that restricted the types of vaccines pharmacists could give to patients under 18. In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an amendment overruling the state-based limits, recognizing that many people had stopped making routine doctor visits, either out of fear of Covid-19 or because of lockdown restrictions.
About 70% of Covid-19 shots have been at pharmacies, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in September, and more than 60% of vaccinated adolescents received their shot through a pharmacy.
About 3.1 million children ages 5 to 11 had received a first dose of the vaccine as of Monday, according to the CDC. Many of the vaccinations were done by pharmacists who had rarely or never given shots to children.
Mark Weidle, a pharmacist who lives near St. Louis, said he was experienced giving flu and Covid-19 shots to older people. He recently learned his preference after jabbing his 5-year-old son and more than 100 other children at a clinic on a high school campus. “Vaccinating 5-year-olds is not necessarily in my wheelhouse," he said. “Give me 90-year-old people all day long."
New York officials recommend parents arrange for shots at their pediatrician’s office because children are generally more comfortable there, said Emily Lutterloh, director of epidemiology for the state Health Department.
State officials this month opened appointments for children at 10 vaccination sites located at colleges, a horse track, an armory and a closed Lord & Taylor department store. Those staffing the clinics had to complete a one-hour training on ways to distract wary children, Dr. Lutterloh said. Crayons, posters and coloring sheets at the sites helped some boys and girls keep their mind off the needle.
A Walgreens executive said the pharmacy chain had administered more than 200,000 vaccines to elementary-age children through Nov. 9.
Around 1,700 CVS stores around the U.S. are distributing vaccines, said Matthew Roberts, a district manager of 14 stores in the Phoenix area. Stores are allocating more time for pediatric appointments than adult appointments, he said, and all vaccinators receive special training.
“I’m by no means an expert on children, but I know Band-Aids and candy work," he said.
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