Analysis: The Vaccine Is a Health Equity Issue for Kids Like My Son

Photo by jacoblund/iStock.

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel for my family. My 10-year-old, ventilator-dependent son and his 11-year-old sister got their COVID vaccinations last month.

After a masked, no-hugs, chilly outdoor holiday season last year, we’ll be able to celebrate Christmas morning together with our extended family indoors thanks to the vaccine. The kids won’t have to worry about exposing their elderly grandparents, and the grandparents (with their vaccine-enabled, vibrant social lives) won’t have to worry about exposing the kids. We can all be together as a family.

The mood at the vaccination clinic was festive. I’m enrolled in nursing school and have to get tested for COVID twice a week despite being fully vaccinated. I’ve been doing the tests on my lunchbreak at the UCSF COVID Equity Project in Fresno — a clinic that provides drive-thru testing, vaccination and monoclonal antibody therapy for community members, without the need for an appointment.

I knew they would have pediatric doses available as soon as the vaccine was approved, so I loaded the kids up in our minivan to go wait in line. The vaccination line was a bit longer and slower than it usually is — kids are squirmier than adults — but even so we were in and out in under an hour.

My son spent almost a full year in the hospital as an infant. During that year, my husband and I felt a jarring sense of isolation and loneliness each time we drove home from the hospital, leaving our tiny son behind. To us, it seemed like our little family was falling apart. Yet the rest of the world continued on as if nothing had changed.

I’ve had that same feeling during the pandemic. Our family has remained hyper-cautious throughout, because the virus poses such a high risk to my son. But we had to figure out how to do that in a world where the people around us weren’t taking precautions anymore.

We live in the Central San Joaquin Valley, which has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Our major hospitals are still scrambling to care for COVID patients, and their ICUs are full of people who aren’t vaccinated. Ambulances are now declining to transport non-emergency cases in an effort to free up hospital beds. But restaurants are open, concerts are happening, and many people are living their lives like COVID is no longer a threat.

When our family goes out in public, only a small fraction of people wear masks or attempt to keep their distance. It’s as though they live in a separate reality and have just stopped worrying about the pandemic.

The COVID vaccine for children is safe and effective, and it’s the best way to protect not only children but also the larger community. Was I concerned about the risks of the vaccine? No. COVID is a far greater threat to my son, who has to go to the ICU when exposed to the kind of germs that give healthy kids the sniffles. The vaccination also benefits my healthy daughter, who won’t have her schooling interrupted by quarantines every time she is exposed to a person who is infected.

Some vaccine skeptics try to discount the number of children who have died of COVID (close to 700) because most of the children had underlying health conditions. What is wrong with us as a society if we’re willing to write off dead children as being somehow at fault for their own deaths because they have disabilities or immunocompromising conditions?

Children, including those who are medically fragile like my son, don’t need to get sick or die from COVID-19.  Vaccinations for everyone — including newly eligible kids 5 to 11 years old and eventually kids under 5 — are the key to ending this pandemic, and the anxiety and suffering it has caused.

We can’t wish the virus away or pretend it’s not there. And we can’t pretend some people’s lives matter more than others.

How do we get back to normal? We get vaccinated.

Jennifer McLelland has a bachelor’s degree in public policy and management from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in criminology from California State University, Fresno. She worked for the Fresno Police Department in patrol for eight years. She is currently a stay-at-home mother and paid caregiver through the In Home Supportive Services program.  She is active in advocating for disability rights and home- and community-based services.

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