By Jessica Grose Published May 12, 2021 | Updated May 13, 2021
Alejandra Gerardo, 9, looked up at her mother as she received her first shot of the Pfizer vaccine during a clinical trial for children at Duke Health in Durham, N.C.Credit...Associated Press
On May 4, Dr. Hina Talib, who goes by the handle @teenhealthdoc on Instagram, asked the parents among her 33,000 followers if they were hesitant to get the coronavirus vaccine for their 12- to 15-year-olds, and if so, why. Dr. Talib, who is a physician in the adolescent medicine division at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York, was surprised to get 600 messages filled with questions and concerns.
More often than not, Dr. Talib said, the parents had already had the Covid-19 vaccine themselves, and would preface their message with: “I’m not an anti-vaxxer or an anti-masker. I’m just worried.” According to recently released polls, parents across the country share those concerns, with only about 30 percent saying they would get their children vaccinated right away. Parents of infants and preschoolers expressed more anxiety about the vaccine than parents of teenagers did.
In trials, there have been no serious safety concerns for children thus far, and Dr. Lee Savio Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, heralded the recent emergency use approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 12 to 15 as “a critically important step in bringing life-saving vaccines to children and adolescents.”
Despite evidence of the vaccine’s safety, several parents I spoke to over the past week were similarly hesitant about getting their children the shot. They were not skeptical about all vaccines; their children tended to be up-to-date with recommended well-child vaccines. Their overall fear was related to the newness of the vaccine, and unknown future outcomes.
As Kimberly Johnson, 38, the mom of elementary-school-age twins in Pound Ridge, N.Y., put it to me in a Facebook message: “I’m not anti-vax but this all seems just too fast for me. I don’t want my children to be responding to those lawyer ads you see on TV 25 years from now. You know the ones, ‘If you were under the age of 16 in the years 2021-2022 and received the Covid-19 vaccination you could be entitled to compensation …’”
For Teens, Concerns About Puberty and Fertility
Parents of adolescents I spoke to tended to be concerned about the vaccine affecting puberty and future fertility for their children. Saadia Faruqi, 45, a children’s book author in Houston whose kids are 11 and 14, said that though she and her husband got the vaccine, she worries about how it might affect her kids’ hormones, fertility and their growing bodies.
Ms. Faruqi feels that if she makes the wrong decision for her children, “I’m going to be a bad mom,” she said. “I don’t want either of my kids to turn around when they’re in adulthood and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’”
Dr. Talib has also heard these concerns from parents of teens, and she said that while she understands the worry, there’s no biological mechanism that would make the Covid-19 vaccine worse for teenagers.
“Hormones related to puberty should not change the immune response, or the side effect profile of this vaccine,” Dr. Talib said. In trials, the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine was extremely effective for children 12-15 — there were zero breakthrough infections among the kids who received the inoculation.
Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine, who wrote an article for The Times debunking disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine and fertility, said: “Even during the vaccine trials some of the women inadvertently got pregnant. There’s nothing even to empirically support” a link between infertility and the Covid vaccine. “I have two daughters myself, who are in the 12-14 year age group, I totally understand the fear,” she said. “But there’s really no basis for it.”
For Younger Children, Worries About Allergies and Side Effects
Molly Herman, 35, who has a 2-year-old and is 32 weeks pregnant with her second child, said she’s anxious about giving her daughter the vaccine, even though she chose to get the shot during her pregnancy. Her daughter has never had antibiotics and she’s barely been sick, so “I don’t know what she’s allergic to,” said Ms. Herman, who lives in Medfield, Mass., and works in higher education.
Nicole Frehsee Mazur, 39, who lives in Birmingham, Mich., was also concerned about her children, who are 4 and 6, having an allergic reaction to the vaccine, because she had an averse response to the Moderna shot and the kids have allergies. “I’m not opposed to vaccinating them, I would just like to wait until more kids are vaccinated,” she said.
Vaccines may be available for children over 2 by September at the earliest, so these concerns are theoretical at the moment. Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician and a researcher at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, said that she understands parents’ hesitations. “That kind of conversation has been present before we had a feasible vaccine, especially from groups that have been marginalized and experimented on. It’s not a fear that’s far-fetched,” she said.
But Dr. Heard-Garris said she trusts the science and the data, and that the abstract fears of the vaccine’s long-term effects should be weighed against the real-life impacts of the virus. As the A.A.P. President Dr. Beers put it: “While fewer children than adults have suffered the most severe disease, this is not a benign disease in children. Thousands of children have been hospitalized, and hundreds have died.”
The doctors I spoke to were hopeful that, as the vaccine becomes a reality for young kids rather than an idea, parents will become less hesitant. They urged parents, especially those whose kids have allergies, to talk to their pediatricians about the best approach for their children.
Dr. Talib said that parents and teens alike in her practice have said they would feel more comfortable getting their vaccines in a pediatrician’s office, closely monitored by a doctor they know, than at a large vaccine site like a convention center or a pharmacy, the way many adults have been vaccinated. Last week, President Biden said that he was shifting his administration’s vaccination strategy away from mass vaccination sites and toward more local sites in order to get more shots to younger people and the vaccine hesitant.
It’s still unclear how many states or localities may encourage or require middle- or high-school students to get the vaccine before attending in-person school this fall, though more than 100 colleges and universities have already announced that students must have the Covid vaccine if they want to return to campus.
Ultimately, the biggest proponents of the vaccine may be the children themselves, if they’re old enough to have an opinion. “Don’t forget to check in with your teen and hear their thoughts and questions about the vaccine as well,” Dr. Talib said.
Though in many states, those under 18 need parental consent to get the vaccine, Dr. Heard-Garris said that her patients in the 16 and up crowd who are already eligible for the vaccine are telling her, “I want this; I know my mom doesn’t want this.”
They want to be able to get back to school, and go to prom and hang out with their friends, without worrying about the virus looming. They want to return to some semblance of “normal,” just like their parents.