Mya Halsey’s 13th birthday on May 18, 2020 fell far short of her expectations. Instead of celebrating her official entry into the teenage years with a party full of her friends like she’d originally planned, the Sag Harbor resident was under quarantine, with only a socially distanced car parade to mark the occasion. It was just another disappointment in a year defined by missing out — on playing sports, spending time with friends and family, and other hallmarks of normal adolescent life.
On May 13 of this year, Mya got what she called “an early birthday present,” heading to Stony Brook Southampton College with two friends, Stella Lima, 15, and Ava Lima, 14, to get their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, just a day after the CDC approved the vaccine for use in children ages 12 to 15.
Mya is one of many children in that age range that were eager to get vaccinated as soon as possible once the CDC extended approval to their age group. While some parents and their children aren’t ready to make that decision yet — or have firmly decided not to — for children like Mya, and her parents, getting vaccinated was something they were motivated to do for a variety of reasons. Mya’s mother, Janine Halsey, and her fiancé, Donald Johnson, are both vaccinated and said their son, Chase Halsey, who is 9, will receive the vaccine as soon as he is eligible as well.
“It’s a relief for Donald and I to know that Mya is on her way to being protected from the virus and can go back to some sort of normalcy and be a kid again,” Ms. Halsey said.
The FDA granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15 based off the results of a study of more than 2,000 kids that showed 100 percent efficacy at preventing symptomatic COVID. It was similar to the findings from studies in the 16 to 25 age group, showing no indications of serious adverse side effects. The most common side effects reported were fatigue and headache, primarily after the first dose, conditions that usually resolved on their own in a day or two.
Despite those very encouraging findings, vaccine hesitancy remains an issue. The fact that children have not been as severely affected by COVID as adults may be the cause for some of this hesitancy, along with the misinformation that persists and spreads on social media.
Dr. Thelma Gaetano is a board-certified pediatrician with Stony Brook Pediatrics. She said that parents have been generating a lot of questions about the vaccine, curious about whether it’s safe to co-administer it with other vaccines, expressing concerns about side effects, and wondering if children who have previously had COVID should still get vaccinated.
She said that many of the recommendations that are out there for adults are the same for kids, adding that current recommendations allow for administering the vaccine at the time or around other vaccines, and saying that children absolutely should still get the vaccine even if they have had COVID. She said the side effects profile in children has been similar to what they’ve seen in adults, with the only possible difference being more fainting post-administration in children as opposed to adults, and some enlarged lymph nodes, in the clavicle area, on the side where the vaccine was administered. She said neither of those reactions are cause for concern.
“We’ve seen that with other vaccines, such as [HPV vaccine] Gardasil, but it’s hard to tell if it’s a function of the vaccine itself,” she said. “We see it in adults too, but it’s more rare.”
Dr. Gaetano encourages parents to report any adverse side effects their children may have using the VAERS app (Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System).
While some families, like the Halseys, had no qualms about inoculating their children immediately against the virus, it was a slightly more nuanced decision for others. Kate McManus, a Sag Harbor resident, has two children, seventh-grader Sabrina, 12, and third-grader Violet, 9. Sabrina received her first dose on May 15, but Ms. McManus said making the decision with Sabrina — who has been in remote learning all year, along with her younger sister — involved a bit of thinking it through.
“For my husband and I, it was a complete no-brainer for ourselves to get vaccinated, but when it came to Sabrina, it was a harder decision to make,” Ms. McManus said. “With her being home and not being as exposed, we felt like maybe we had a bit of time on our side and didn’t have to jump into.”
That feeling changed, Ms. McManus said, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks, a decision that surprised people and struck many, even those in the medical field, as premature.
“It made us concerned about how that would be regulated, and now we’d have two kids out in the world next to people not wearing masks, and we can’t trust that those people are vaccinated,” Ms. McManus said. “We felt like the risks of COVID at that point were worse than any potential for side effects.”
For children in the younger age group, having an open dialogue with parents is key. Ms. McManus said they did that with Sabrina, wanting to make sure her opinion was validated and respected. Sabrina said she felt good about her decision to get vaccinated.
“I was really excited to get it because I have family members I want to be able to see more,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to a summer visit with cousins from New Jersey she has not seen since the pandemic began.
Sabrina’s younger sister Violet is eagerly awaiting her turn as well. She spent the last year doing her ballet classes over Zoom, only recently going back to in-person classes, and said she “can’t wait” until she can hug her best friend, who is 12 and just got her shot.
Many children and teens in the younger age group who were recently vaccinated expressed not only relief that they could go back to normal life and see friends and family without fear, but also said they felt proud that they were doing their part to help bring the pandemic to an end.
“This vaccine is life-changing and can protect future generations from this horrible virus,” Mya Halsey said. “By your getting this vaccine it’s not just protecting you, it’s also protecting other people around you.”
That kind of long-lasting protection that comes from herd immunity can’t be achieved if a large segment of the population remains unvaccinated, and Dr. Gaetano said that vaccine hesitancy is “the biggest problem we face.”