ATLANTA (CBS46) -- Children aged 5 to 11 are now eligible for Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine.

But the real question is: will parents let them get vaccinated?

Parents have been using the religious exemption to opt their kids out of vaccines like measles, mumps, and other diseases since the 1960s.

And while the COVID vaccine is not mandated in Georgia schools, the increased use of exemptions could foreshadow some of the distribution challenges that lay ahead.

“We were in the ER a lot,” said Atlanta mom, Erin Cassel.

That’s how Cassel remembers the first six months of her son’s life.

“There were definitely some scary nights where he turned different colors,

“He started getting infections - bronchiolitis - which is the infant version of bronchitis. There were definitely some scary nights where he turned different colors, weird shades of purple and gray,” said Cassel. “It’s not a fun thing to watch.”

Bodie

Bodie - Erin Cassel

Bodie was a high risk toddler, which meant close contact with one sick kid, could send him into a spiral of health complications.

“So my really, really sick kid is entering winter with no flu shot, and no protection. And every kid who is around a kid that can’t get a flu shot puts them in a life or death situation,” Cassel said.

It all goes back to herd immunity, which only happens when a significant portion of the population is vaccinated - so the vulnerable among us, are less likely to come into contact with the disease.

“If you think about a cocoon, you think about a butterfly. It makes itself a protective coating. That cocoon, that’s what herd immunity is. So as the butterfly changes, as we have people that are vulnerable to diseases on the inside, vaccinations on the outside makes those people on the inside protected - even when they’re not vaccinated,” said Dr. Bronwen Garner, who specializes in infectious diseases at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “It’s really all about transmission of a disease and interrupting it – and keeping those people who are vulnerable to the disease inside the cocoon.”

Piedmont Healthcare’s Dr. Garner says the same idea works for any infectious disease – including coronavirus. The hope is that the population can develop a high enough level of immunity to keep the spread low.

“When you have enough people immune to a disease, the virus gets stuck and can’t find a person that is still vulnerable to it. And when the virus can’t move from person to person, essentially the virus dies out,” Dr. Garner said.

But that won’t happen if parents choose not to vaccinate their kids.

So you might be asking, doesn’t Georgia law require students be vaccinated before they go to school? Yes and no.

Georgia children can be exempt for medical or religious beliefs.

CBS 46 Investigates pulled state records and found in the 2011 school year, 629 Georgia kindergartners were not vaccinated because of the religious exemption.

Flash forward to the 2019 school year, and that number jumped to 1,068 kindergartners not vaccinated because of the religious exemption. That’s a 70-percent increase.

Even though the COVID vaccine is not mandated in Georgia schools, that increase could foreshadow some of the challenges that lay ahead, when administering the COVID vaccine in schools.

“What we see are more frequent and longer duration outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in communities where adoption of vaccination practices are low,” said Dr. Garner.

Meanwhile, recent polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 30-percent of parents will definitely not vaccinate their kids, 33-percent will wait and see, 27-percent will vaccinate their kids right away, and 5-percent will only vaccinate their kids if it’s required.

CBS46 Investigates also asked the Georgia Department of Public Health for student immunization data for the 2020 school year but it was not complete.

“DPH normally tries to complete audits for 100% of our schools. However, the reduction for 2020 can be attributed to COVID, including school closures, virtual learning, and limited local PH staff available to complete the audits due to COVID response. Some districts were unable to complete the audits, and others completed as many as possible. CDC has taken this into consideration, and only asked states to complete as many as they could,” said Nancy Nydam, Director of Communications for the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Copyright 2021 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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