The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have now been conditionally approved for children as young as 12 in the United States. Clinical testing on children as young as 5 is already underway and may be granted emergency authorization by the FDA at some point this summer. But as the New York Times points out this weekend, the number of children under age 18 who are being vaccinated is lagging far behind all other age groups thus far. But based on largely anecdotal evidence, it’s not usually a case of a child being afraid to have a needle jabbed into their arm. Parents, many of whom have been vaccinated themselves, are reluctant to give permission for their children to be vaccinated. And that is leading some states to consider loosening the rules and allowing kids to decide for themselves. Is this wise? Perhaps a better question might be whether it’s even legal to do so.
The vaccination of children is crucial to achieving broad immunity to the coronavirus and returning to normal school and work routines. But though Covid vaccines have been authorized for children as young as 12, many parents, worried about side effects and frightened by the newness of the shots, have held off from permitting their children to get them.
A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only three in 10 parents of children between the ages of 12 through 17 intended to allow them to be vaccinated immediately. Many say they will wait for long-term safety data or the prod of a school mandate. But with many teenagers eager to get shots that they see as unlocking freedoms denied during the pandemic, tensions are crackling in homes in which parents are holding to a hard no.
The Times leads off their report with the experience of a high school senior from New York City who is the child of divorced parents. Her mother wanted her to get the vaccine, but the father was adamantly opposed, threatening a lawsuit and custody battle if the daughter was vaccinated. The mother decided to wait. Her daughter disagreed and went out and got both shots without telling her parents. They still don’t know today.
I suppose the first question we should ask is who administered the shots to this child without parental consent? New York State has a bill pending in the legislature that would lower the age of consent for all vaccinations to 14, but it hasn’t been signed into law yet. So technically, whoever administered the doses to the girl in the story broke the law. It’s a situation that is hardly unique to New York and the issue is once again breaking down along largely partisan lines. The linked report indicates that many blue states and cities are working on plans that would lower the age of consent, while others, such as South Carolina, are barring anyone from giving a COVID shot to patients under the age of 18 without a note from Mom or Dad, even though it’s currently legal for 16-year-olds to consent to other vaccines.
While each state should be free to set its own rules, shouldn’t this be an area where there is at least a bit more consensus, particularly since we’re talking about children? It’s long been generally held that parents or guardians are responsible for the medical care of their kids. In most states, it’s still the case that a school nurse can be fired for giving an aspirin to a student without a note from their parents. There are, in my opinion, strong arguments against suddenly opening the doors for children to defy the wishes of their parents just because COVID vaccines are currently a political hot potato.
One of the main reasons for people being cautious about these vaccines is the newness of the mRNA technology employed by both Pfizer and Moderna. Side effects thus far have been relatively mild and infrequent. But there is still little to no data indicating if there are long-term effects that haven’t shown up yet. In just the past three days, both Pfizer and Moderna, along with the FDA, issued warnings about possible heart inflammation issues after getting vaccinated. Granted, these issues remain relatively rare and most resolve quickly. But is there a cumulative effect waiting around the corner that may not show up widely until people start getting multiple booster shots? Even the experts agree that they don’t have enough data yet to say for sure.
When I made the decision to get vaccinated, these were issues that were on my mind. I wasn’t one of the people who was insisting that everything was 100% fine and everyone should get a shot. I made my decision only for myself, based on a number of factors, including the fact that I’m already pretty old and probably had less to fear from the shot than the disease. But parents are making these decisions for their children who are too young to understand all of the long-term ramifications. And if they start getting annual shots of this stuff and it turns out to lead to permanent heart health issues, it’s going to turn out to be a complete disaster.
Is it any wonder that only 30% of parents of children aged 12 to 17 are saying they will get their kids vaccinated immediately? One of the most common concerns stated by participants in the linked study was “waiting for long-term safety data.” Old fogies like myself can throw caution to the wind and have less to lose. Children are at the opposite end of the risk/reward spectrum. And let’s not forget that children remain the least likely to suffer serious outcomes or die even if they do come down with COVID. For all we know, they may be developing their own antibodies that are as good as or better than the vaccines. Rushing to pass laws to remove the requirement for parental consent for any medical procedures is a bad idea. Doing it only to allow them to get COVID shots seems even more ill-considered.