Dele Davies, M.D., M.S., M.H.C.M.

Meet the Maximizer

Dr. Dele Davies talks about the danger COVID-19 poses for children and families, getting the community back to normal, and how vaccines really work.

Dr. Davies is a pediatrician specializing in pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital in Omaha. He is also Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Nebraska Medical Center

How do you feel COVID-19 has affected the lives of children?

COVID-19 has directly impacted children through infection, and through a condition known as MIS-C, which is multisystem inflammatory syndrome of children. This can affect even those children who had very mild COVID symptoms. But I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even kids who have not had COVID have experienced social, emotional, and academic impacts. Children have not been able to connect with their peers and families. We know that in the last year, we’ve had 25% more children present to an emergency room with a mental health issue. That’s children between five and 11, and over the age of 11, it’s actually 31%. Also, many children have struggled with remote learning.

Why is it important that kids be vaccinated against COVID-19?

Children who are unvaccinated become a repository for the virus. Even if they don’t get very sick themselves, the virus has an opportunity to mutate. The new variants emerge in unvaccinated populations. That variant can now spread into the population and cause even those who were vaccinated to be really sick. We’ve seen this with the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants.

The other reason to vaccinate children is that even though they have a lower risk of getting COVID, they have mothers and dads and grandparents who may have an immunocompromised condition. They can put them at risk. We want to make sure that kids don’t become a conduit for spreading COVID within the community. Of course, we talk about something called herd immunity, where the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely it is for COVID to spread inside the community. For all those reasons, it’s so important that kids get vaccinated.

How does vaccinating kids against COVID-19 benefit you personally?

Well, it benefits me personally because I have children myself. My children are older, but they’re engaged in a lot of activities where they help volunteer with younger children. The more children who are vaccinated, the more those activities can get back to normal. A lot of what my kids were doing face to face, they’re now doing through Zoom. It’s not quite the same as being there in person. As a dad, as someone with friends who have young children, I see that the level of engagement and interaction is not the same as it was pre-COVID.

The other thing I’ve seen, so many families where the parents are not able to come to work. We have a high absentee rate right now because of parents who have to stay home with a young child, who’s either been exposed to COVID or has COVID. For all those reasons personally, because obviously the fewer people we have at work, the less work gets done that needs to get done. It becomes an issue for all of us. This is not just something we can say is happening to somebody else. It impacts everyone including myself.

How does vaccinating children against COVID-19 benefit you professionally?

As a pediatrician, as an infectious diseases specialist, I know the immense value of prevention. You can reduce the impact of that child becoming really sick. I take care of these children in the hospital. I see the incredible emotional toll it takes on their parents and siblings when they’re here. For me, I would rather not have to explain to another parent why their child needs their heart drained because they have fluid around it from myocarditis, from MIS-C. Sometimes children have guilt that they passed on COVID to a family member who is immunocompromised. From a professional point of view, I would rather treat children with infectious diseases that could not have been prevented. This is one that we know we can do something about.

How does vaccinating kids against COVID-19 benefit the community?

Kids represent about a quarter of the American population. Again, we talk about herd immunity. If we have 25% of the eligible population who are unvaccinated, those are just more opportunities for the virus to mutate and spread. If kids are not vaccinated, we can’t be sure we’re protecting the elderly, the vulnerable, especially those over 75, who still have significant risk even though they may be vaccinated, because their immune systems don’t work the way they did when they were younger.

Omicron is leading to almost 900 children being admitted to the hospital every single day. That’s like four jumbo jets every day, full of children that must be admitted to a hospital. These cases could easily be prevented. Vaccination is important to keep children out of hospital, to minimize the risk of infecting others, and just allowing us to get back to normal. This is really where we want to be. Everybody wants to pull off their masks. Everybody wants to interact like we used to before COVID. We’re not going to get there without immunizing our children.

How would you respond if someone asked you if their child should get the COVID-19 vaccine?

I would say, just do it for all the reasons that I’ve given. There are so many potential benefits, not just to your child, but to your family and the community at large. If we ever want to get back to a point where we can interact like we did before COVID, we need everybody to do their part. We cannot ignore 25% of the community.

What do you wish more people knew about COVID-19 vaccines?

I talk to a lot of people who simply want to know more about how vaccines work. Well, the minute you’re born, your body can recognize everything that’s a part of you. When you give a vaccine, you’re introducing a protein that the body doesn’t recognize as belonging to itself. You’ve probably heard about the spike protein that’s part of COVID-19.

Now, think of your body as being like a country. The country has a military with different branches – the Coast Guard, Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines – and they each have their role. When you introduce that strange protein, your body recognizes it as an invader. So, it gathers the commanders and says, “Here’s your target. Figure out how to get rid of it.” That’s the first time. Now when you give the second dose, the body recognizes the intruder and deploys all the branches, all over the country, and says, “wherever you see this protein, get rid of it right away.” It’s a war.

Once the viruses are inside your borders, they are rapidly dividing. They get inside your cells, and your body must respond. Whoever wins that war depends on who has the upper hand. Without a vaccine, the virus continues to multiply. It gets into your lungs. It can take over your whole body, and you’re in trouble. But with a vaccine, there are troops stationed all over your body, ready to attack that virus.

Think about if you go to war as a country, and you have to deploy your troops. With a vaccine, those troops are already there, ready to respond to any kind of attack that comes. That’s what happens with the vaccine. It primes the body so your defense, your antibodies, are ready to go. When the virus gets in and starts trying to divide, it has no chance. That’s why vaccines are so important. They get your body primed and ready to respond to the emergency of a foreign virus or bacteria or any kind of foreign body that’s not supposed to be there inside of you.