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Secretary of Health and Human Services visits Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, urges COVID-19 vaccination for kids

Xavier Becerra, United States Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Photographer: Kevin Morley

The United States Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, visited CHoR’s Children’s Pavilion today. The stop at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU is part of a concerted, weeklong effort by the Secretary to erode doubt and build trust and confidence across the country in the recently available pediatric COVID-19 vaccine. See photo essay.

After talking with patients receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and their families, Secretary Becerra held a press conference on the Pavilion’s outdoor Sky Terrace where he, along with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine, President of VCU and VCU Health System Dr. Michael Rao and pediatrician Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, emphasized the importance of vaccination in overcoming COVID-19 and keeping kids and adults healthy.

“I cannot really express in words how proud I am of my community for everything they have done to make sure we maximize the safety of people in the face of COVID,” said President Rao to kick off the press conference.

Kids leading the way with COVID vaccines

Johnny Richter was one of the patients who met the Secretary. He celebrated his 5th birthday with balloons, a special breakfast and his first COVID shot. When asked why he was excited to get the vaccine, Johnny said, “to help save the world – and so we can go back to Chuck E. Cheese.”

Ten-year-old Abby Avula, the youngest child of Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccine liaison for the Virginia Department of Health and director of the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Departments, also received her first vaccine during the Secretary’s visit, as did 9-year-old Mary Picado. Mary’s mother is hopeful she can help encourage other Hispanic parents to get themselves and their children vaccinated.

“To the parents of children like Abby, Johnny and Mary – thank you for fulfilling your responsibility to your child, your family and your community to be safe. That means you understand that you don’t live in a cocoon,” said Secretary Becerra. “We are going to go around the country and make sure that every parent understands we want their child to be safe and protected. We’re making sure our children have that opportunity to show up and show that they’re ready to be part of that community, and at the ripe age of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 – be responsible.”

Nearly 4,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been provided to children and caregivers at CHoR thus far. That number is expected to increase exponentially as dedicated vaccine clinics for kids ages 5-11 began this week at the Children’s Pavilion and Fredericksburg Multispecialty Center.

“I feel really comfortable as a pediatrician and mom recommending this vaccine for my patients and my own children. My 6-year-old received his first dose last week,” said Dr. Kimbrough. “Thankfully kids for the most part do well with infectious diseases, but not all do. Unfortunately, more than 700 children have died from COVID-19. That rate has increased over the last several months with the delta variant, which has predominantly impacted kids because many are unvaccinated. Now is our chance to protect this younger group of children.”

Governor Northam added, “This pandemic has been going on for 19 months, and we know that the answer to putting it in the rearview mirror is to be vaccinated. The most exciting part of this day is that we have Abby, Mary, Johnny and a lot of other children showing other kids how easy and important it is to get a vaccine to help yourself and those around you.”

Educating kids and families throughout the pandemic

Secretary Becerra was also interested in learning of CHoR’s efforts to educate the community about infection prevention throughout the pandemic, with an eye on vaccination in particular. These efforts have included a growing library of online videos and articles, a fun and factual activity book for kids, a virtual town hall for parents and guardians, testimonials, articles in family-focused publications and media interviews with physician specialists. Materials have been developed in English and Spanish and shared across the Commonwealth through VDH, Richmond Public Schools and community clinics and partners.

Another key component of these efforts has been partnership with Richmond Public Schools and the Richmond City Health District. CHoR physicians served as subject matter experts in a series of regional community conversations, educating Richmond Public Schools families and team members about the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination.

As schools were preparing to return to in-person learning, the messaging focused on the importance of teens and adults — the only approved age groups at the time — getting their vaccines to protect themselves and those around them. Now, the eligible population has expanded greatly to those age 5 and up, giving nearly all grade school children access to this potentially life-saving protection.

With a commitment to ensuring all children can receive the health care they need, CHoR collaborates with the Richmond City Health District to offer all vaccinations – including a recent fast-track school vaccine clinic to get kids caught up on required vaccines and back in school as quickly and safely as possible. While the health district is offering the COVID vaccines, they can also direct families to CHoR for this service.

“As the region’s children’s hospital we are dedicated to providing evidence-based information to our community — that means respectfully answering questions, understanding hesitations and getting through this pandemic together,” said Elias Neujahr, CHoR president. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to welcome Secretary Becerra to CHoR and to share our efforts in educating and caring for kids and families.”

Secretary Becerra’s visit follows one from Governor Northam in August stressing the essential role of all immunizations in keeping kids and communities healthy.

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