portraits of four kids
(Courtesy photos)

With the recent emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for kids 12 and up and trials underway for kids as young as 2, it’s no surprise that the choice about whether to vaccinate or not is topping the minds of parents across the Pittsburgh area.

Kids, though, are thinking about the vaccine as well. Perhaps no group has been more greatly affected by the pandemic than children, whose entire worlds were upended in an instant and understanding why was more difficult. Now, for those adolescents who are newly eligible or soon to be eligible for vaccination, some are processing their feelings about what being protected from the virus may mean for them. We were able to (virtually) chat with them about this new shift in the COVID-19 saga.

Andrew Pohland, 11, Greensburg

Andrew will turn 12 this fall, so whether or not the vaccine is approved for younger kids soon, he will quickly be eligible. His mom describes him as an empathetic kid who thinks a lot about the effects of the pandemic on his community.

The rising sixth grader talked about how sad it made him to think of people who died and didn’t get to say goodbye to their loved ones. “But the bright side is the vaccine’s coming, and we will get a chance, and that everybody who will hopefully be vaccinated will help the pandemic, like, be under control. It’s like we are putting it into a bag and closing it.

“…I really want the vaccine, but I just don’t know what the side effects are because whenever my mom got the second vaccine, she was a little drowsy so I don’t know how it will affect a kid’s body and I don’t really want anything bad to happen to anybody, so I will wait ’til I am 12 and then I will be able to do it.”

When his mom reminded him that the vaccine might be approved for younger kids before he turns 12 this fall, he was unsure that he would get it right away. “Well, the thing that I am worried about is that whenever people are 12, they can get it and their bodies are bigger, but kids that are 5? Even adults sometimes have side effects. For a kid that’s 5, that might cause an issue.” He noted that his mom’s side effects lasted only about a day, but he was really worried about her. “It still really freaked me out.”

Natalie Shaffer, 14, Russellton (West Deer)

Natalie lives with her parents and two siblings, 12-year-old Anna and 8-year-old James. Her dad is a microbiologist who has done some in-depth research about how the vaccine works, so her parents did not have many reservations about their two oldest children receiving the shot as soon as they were eligible. Her mom, Crystal, said, “Was I concerned? Maybe a little, but not as much as I am concerned about COVID or the unknown after-effects of it.”

Natalie talked with Rtvsrece on the eve of her first vaccine dose and again a few days later. She was anxious but excited. “I feel nervous to actually get the shot because I don’t like shots, but also excited maybe … Because like, once you get it, you still have to be cautious and take precautions, but you don’t have to worry as much with the vaccine than with not.”

She has some concern about the seemingly new science and did research on her own before deciding to go through with it. “I guess I was a little tiny bit concerned about getting it, just because of, like, long-term side effects or something, but I don’t know, millions of people have gotten it.” She talked to her parents; they both said they thought it was a good idea. Natalie looked particularly into deaths reported by people after they had received the vaccine (though not necessarily caused by the vaccine). “I wasn’t too worried about it, just really slightly.” She asked her friends, but they all said that they weren’t sure.

Natalie has loved ones in her life who are also minors who want the vaccine, but their parents are not willing to give them permission. She also has two friends that received their first dose last week. “There wasn’t a wave of people. I know a lot of them, their parents are hesitant and don’t really want them to get it, so then they aren’t really allowed I guess.” There has been a great deal of chatter around the school about people’s different decisions surrounding the vaccine, but Natalie said it hasn’t been tense. Her friends are just thinking about all the information.

The biggest struggle for Natalie the past year has been the inconsistent nature of school — the constant switch from in-person learning to remote has been really difficult. If more people get the vaccine then school would be more consistent. “That would be really nice.” Her biggest hope is for a somewhat normal summer. “This summer we are going on vacation … I’m just happy that by then we will be good, the vaccine will be, you know, like fully kicked in I guess, so, like, we won’t have to worry as much about spreading COVID or getting it ourselves.”

As for unmasking once she gets her second shot? She isn’t sure. “I think it just depends who we are around and stuff like that. If they are also vaccinated, then I don’t think it’s as big a deal. But if I am around people who aren’t, I don’t know what the chances are if you are vaccinated giving it to somebody, but I wouldn’t want to give it to anybody. So if they are not vaccinated, then I might still wear a mask.”

Kayley and Timmy Wu, 5 and 4, Bellevue

Betty and Victor Wu have talked to their two kids, Kayley and Timmy, about the vaccine. All of the adults in their lives, from parents to grandparents to babysitters, have been vaccinated, and the kids talk often about when it is their turn. The Wus check weekly for new information about kids and the vaccine by googling the topic and looking for sources they trust. They have zero hesitation about their kids getting the shot. “I trust the scientists,” Betty shares. “They will get the first available spot we can.”

Kayley knows to prepare for side effects. “I will feel happy, but my arm will feel ill. So I have to have nothing, that has to be my day off. And I have to not even move my single arm.” She shares that soon it will be her birthday and she hopes she can get her vaccine on that day as a present. While kids her age won’t likely be approved in the next few weeks, her excitement is contagious. “Then I could drink tea parties without a mask, so then like we could drink real tea, even put some bubble tea in my teacups.” When asked if she has any worries about getting the vaccine, Kayley responds with a shout, “No! I am worried that people will have the virus still!”

She goes on to explain how babies won’t be able to get the vaccine, including her young cousin, and babies don’t wear masks. Her anxiety about contracting the virus is more concerning to her than the pain of a shot, according to her mom. Kayley has been very worried about people falling ill. “I don’t like it, and because I don’t like it, is people get sick and they die from COVID-19. And that’s what I don’t like. I want people to stay alive until they’re old, very old like grandma and grandpa.”

When her younger brother is asked about his turn to get the shot, he bounces in his seat. How does he feel? “Excited! Because I can’t wait to go everywhere because I had the vaccine.” He rolls out a plan of visiting new places in between quick stops at home just to sleep. He is worried about getting the shot because it hurts and plans to still wear his mask just in case. When asked if he feels safe right now, he shares that he doesn’t yet. “Because kids can’t get the vaccine, and mommy and daddy already had the vaccine.”

Liam Parkes, 11, Sewickley

Liam lives with his mom, stepdad and stepsister in Sewickley. He attends Quaker Valley School District, which has been largely in person since September. While there have been challenges the last year between remote schooling, hybrid school and worries about those around him, Liam thinks he has mostly been able to roll with the changes of the pandemic. “I mean, the coronavirus was kind of easy for me to adapt to, and yeah I guess I just got to play video games all the time.” Like many kids during this season, he was able to connect and be free in online worlds when the real world was shut down. His mom, Adrienne, laughs, and asks if he did anything else for the last year. “Did you read any books?”

He smirks. “I did read books.” He also did some Legos, “but mostly video games.” When asked if he has any concerns or qualms about getting the vaccine, he has none. “I feel good about getting vaccinated soon, and that’s kinda … that.” He is ready for a return to a more normal life.

His mom is more worried about him getting the shot than he is. Not because of the science behind it, though, but because of his previous vaccine anxiety. “He hates shots and screams like he is being boiled alive every time.” Liam is asthmatic, and so she has much more anxiety about him getting the virus than about getting the vaccine. “If they could just come out with a gummy version of the vaccine, that would be great.”

As for her own feelings as a Black woman given the racist history of medical experimentation and healthcare inequity in the United States, Adrienne still felt confident when she got her shot. “I trusted my doctor to give me her best recommendation for me, knowing my health history, medications, etc.” She did have some concern about her immune response following the dose because she had a previous COVID-19 infection, but thankfully she had a standard reaction following her vaccination.

Where should parents look when they make these decisions?

In a world bombarded with information from all sides, it can be tough for parents to know exactly where to seek guidance if they are hesitant about the vaccine. Dr. Glenn Rapsinski is a pediatric infectious disease fellow at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and has been having these exact conversations with many parents. In general, he has seen families fall into three camps:

  • There are those families who are vaccine hesitant in general and do not immunize their children against anything.
  • There are families who are excited to vaccinate themselves and their children against COVID-19, and while they might have a few questions, they are not hesitant about these new vaccines.
  • There are also some families that generally administer most vaccines, but avoid the flu shot. Those families seem to also be more cautious about the COVID-19 vaccination.

Rapsinski is concerned about misinformation circulating, particularly about the speed with which the vaccines were developed. “The perception has been that the COVID vaccines have been rushed, but the reality is that they haven’t been,” he said. “The mRNA technology used has been in development for years and all of the standard safety and efficacy protocols have been followed for the trials. A new virus was a good opportunity for this technology because it only requires the genetic code.”

Rapsinski urges parents to seek quality sources and points to the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as reliable portals to find information. First and foremost, he encourages parents to ask their doctors. “There’s a misconception that we don’t have time to answer your questions, but we do actually want to take that time. Just ask us.”

On a personal note, the doctor shared he has two nieces and two nephews and has no qualms about his young loved ones being vaccinated. “Absolutely, if my brothers and sisters-in-law or my sister and brother-in-law would ask me if I recommend the vaccine, I would recommend it without hesitation.”

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @megstesprit.

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