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'We’re dealing with unprecedented challenges': Pediatric cancer patient's family advocates for COVID vaccines

"Vaccination, broader vaccination, herd immunity – those are the things that would be a real game-changer for her life," Biondi said

ST. LOUIS — Lela Post reaches over to her mom, saying "I love you" and leans in to land a kiss on her cheek. The 6-year-old doesn't just wear her heart on her sleeve, her life motto "LOVE ALL" is written across the front of her shirt.

In February, Lela started bruising and having some fevers. Her family thought it was low iron, but the diagnosis was leukemia.

"That completely blindsided our whole family," mom Stephanie Biondi said. 

"I was scared, and I cried a little bit," Lela said.

Lela's receiving treatment, but the common cold brought her back to St. Louis Children's Hospital, another hurdle that means weeks away from her home; her cat; her little sister, Bianca.

"That's been probably the hardest thing for our whole family," Biondi said. 

"It's been hard for my sister to spend time without me," Lela added, with Biondi responding, "Yeah, she really misses you."

"The therapy is hard and then an infection – on top of that – is even harder," Dr. Shalini Shenoy said.

A Washington University physician with Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Shenoy said they're seeing more pediatric cancer patients come in with COVID, which can cause huge ripple effects for their recovery.

"We've had to postpone therapy. We've had to postpone transplants," she said.

Recently-released data from the CDC shows in August, pediatric hospitalization rates increased four times as much in states with low vaccination rates as opposed to states with high percentages.

There are currently 22 children hospitalized across task force hospitals; four of which are in the ICU.

As of Aug. 30, all five of Missouri's pediatric COVID deaths were from the St. Louis region. The state has since recorded another death; someone between the ages of 15-17.

Even when Lela returns home, her life is still far from a typical 6-year-old's. 

"We’re dealing with unprecedented challenges right now," Biondi said of the planning that goes into every activity they plan for Lela.

But Biondi said pandemic precautions, like indoor masking and social distancing, paired with increased community vaccinations could make all the difference.

"Vaccination, broader vaccination, herd immunity – those are the things that would be a real game-changer for her life," Biondi said

Shenoy repeats the sentiment, echoing the need for community action.

"I can't tell you how many times, I can say 'vaccination, vaccination, vaccination,'" Shenoy said, adding sometimes people are motivated to act when they know what's on the line.

"We're adjusting and doing the best we can, but we would love the help of the community," Biondi said.

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