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Yes, I got my 15-year-old the Pfizer shot

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Yes, I got my 15-year-old the Pfizer shot

Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

The author's son, Fletcher Dworkin-McDaniel, on getting his Covid-19 vaccine at the West Orange Recreation Center the day it became available for 12- to 15-year-olds: "What a societal moment."

Last Tuesday, the morning after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, I let my 15-year-old son Fletcher skip Algebra II and World History, and we drove to the West Orange Recreation Center in East Winter Garden. I wanted Fletcher to be first in line when the doors opened at 9 a.m. so he could get a Covid-19 vaccine.

For a kid who approached every pediatrician visit with a quavery, “Will I have to get a shot?” Fletcher honestly couldn’t wait. The youngest in his sophomore class, he’d been getting playfully teased by his fully vaccinated friends about being too young for the jab. He was the only unvaccinated cast member in Dr. Phillips High School’s theatre magnet's production of The Drowsy Chaperone. And the only unvaccinated kid at a friend’s recent birthday party. It was starting to wear a little thin.

At least once a week, he’d yell — because why come to find me when you can yell across the house? — “MOM! WHEN AM I GETTING THE VACCINE?” Clearly he was reporting back to a friend who’d asked him that question for the umpteenth time.

“AS SOON AS THE FDA SAYS YOU CAN!” I’d yell back. (Hey, it’s not like I was getting up, either.)

I knew approval was imminent. The FDA had been signaling in the media for weeks that they were going to lower the Pfizer vaccine eligibility age to 12. I was as eager for Fletcher to get vaccinated as he was. As long as he was unvaccinated, he was the weakest link in our family, the tiny breach in our immunity bubble that protected my parents, my sister, her husband, their two adult children and me.

When Covid-19 hit the United States last year, it was a killer of the old, the sick, and the mask-less. Just 3 percent of coronavirus cases were children. But these days, kids account for more than 22 percent of new cases each week according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. That’s more than one in five children infected with Covid-19. With more adults, especially seniors, vaccinated, and school activities — and soon summer camps — open, it’s no surprise that kids are the new vector.

Children don’t typically get as sick with Covid-19 as adults do. Their innate immune systems mount a more general attack, which take down the virus far earlier when exposed than adult's. We have to wait for our older immune systems to recognize viral invaders before they launch an assault. That shouldn't get them a pass on vaccination as I've heard some parents say.  Kids still run the risk of developing complications from Covid-19, like multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which can appear after mild bouts of infection, causing widespread inflammation and damaging the kidneys, liver and heart. 

“We see a lot of that in our hospital,"  Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at University of Pennsylvania, told me by phone. "It’s probably less than 0.1 percent of overall infections, but it’s generally under-recognized." 

Plus, kids die from Covid-19. As of May 19, the virus has killed 584,337 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Somewhere between 300 to 500 of these deaths are children’s. That’s an infinitesimal percentage of the whole. Unless you’re the parent of one of the 500. Then that one is all that matters.

Going strictly by the numbers, Dr. Offit pointed out, we already vaccinate for other diseases, like flu, chickenpox and measles, that kill the same number of kids or fewer each year, so a vaccine for Covid-19 is hardly unusual in that regard. “Every year, influenza kills between 75 and 100 children. The number that have died of Covid-19 is greater than that,” he said. “Every year before there was a chickenpox vaccine, 75 to 100 people, mostly children, died of chickenpox. Again, more children have died of Covid-19. About 500 children have died every year of measles. This is roughly the same as have died from Covid-19.”

You don't have to tell me twice. In 2006, I strong-armed Fletcher's pediatrician into giving him the new rotavirus vaccine Rota-Teq (co-developed by Dr. Offit) before it was on the CDC schedule of childhood immunizations. It had gotten its FDA approval the same month Fletcher was born. It was slated to be added to the schedule the following year, but there was only a 12-week window after birth to administer the first dose. Every kid gets rotavirus by age 2, but one in 70 end up in the hospital. There was a vaccine that would prevent that. The pediatrician was reluctant. I insisted my son get it. 

There is a lot of resistance to the Covid-19 vaccine in our neighborhoods as I discovered when I began moderating a lively discussion on Nextdoor about Covid-19 vaccines for kids. It started when I posted  about the FDA approving authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 and up and encouraged parents to get their kids vaxxed. The amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have been shared on the thread since is staggering. 

[See our Covid-19 vaccine Q&A with Paul Offit, MD]

There is so much fear about the vaccine. So much skepticism. So much resistance. And it's deeply dug in. I’ve read comments like, “My kid is not a guinea pig” and "Have you seen the videos of magnets sticking to vaccine sites? Sounds like people are getting CHIPPED to me!" There are insinuations about my own motivations for “pushing this vaccine.” And demands that my post be taken down because “You’re bullying people into getting this experimental vaccine.”

If only it worked that way.

I have zero fear of the vaccines. They are the golden ticket out of this pandemic. A literal life-line. But as I watched what happened in Brazil and now in India, this virus continues to give me 12 Monkeys-type nightmares. 

We are closing in on 33 million Covid-19 cases in the U.S. An estimated 3.8 million are children, a number Dr. Offit believes is incredibly low. “Those are just the children who’ve been tested and found to be infected. That’s off by a factor of five, possibly 10,” he said..

So, on Tuesday I pulled into the West Orange Recreation Center, ready to safeguard my son against adding to that caseload. But more than that, I wanted him to also have a sense of contributing to the greater public good. We are in a public health crisis, and it's going to take all of us, together, to pull ourselves out. When we're vaccinated, I told him, we protect each other. Vaccine-refusers don't just endanger themselves, I said, they become potential hosts for virus incubation and mutation and a vector for transmission. And that's not helpful. 

But as it turned out, the greater good would need to wait.

A staffer for the Florida Department of Health (who didn’t want to give their name because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media) explained that while the FDA was fine with my kid getting the vaccine, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices still had to sign off on and then Tallahassee had to green-light it.

“Even if I wanted to just slip your son in, I wouldn’t even know what dose to give him,” the staffer said.

But they took my number and promised to call as soon as they had the go-ahead to put vaccines into 12- to 15-year-old arms.

Two days later, at 7:30 a.m. my cell phone rang. It was the staffer from the Florida Department of Health. True to their word, they were calling to let me know they would start administering shots at 9 a.m.

Fletcher and I drove over after school. A veteran military medic named Brian, clad in a bright red, long-sleeved T-shirt with the words “COVID-19 RESPONSE” emblazoned across the front, checked us in. He asked Fletcher questions about his health, whether he felt sick at the moment, whether he’d had Covid-19, whether he’d had a vaccine recently and whether we knew this vaccine was approved for emergency use.

I counted maybe five or six moms with kids scattered throughout the space — some checking in, some waiting for shots, some waiting in a staging area to make sure they didn’t have a reaction to the shots. There should have been more people here. I was hoping there would be more people. I was hoping it would be mobbed.

Brian directed Fletcher to get in line behind another girl. They were giving shots two at a time. Fletcher sat down, pulled down his T-shirt sleeve to bare his left arm, and a very kind lady named Margaret swabbed his upper arm.

Fletcher, who gripes every single year about having to get a flu shot, didn’t even flinch as Margaret pushed the needle in.

“What a societal moment,” he said.

Then he sat down to scroll TikTok while we waited for the all-clear to leave.a

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