In the early days of the pandemic, one of the things that gave so many of us hope was that the scientific world was single-handedly focused on COVID-19. We would learn how it spread. We would find treatments. Crucially, we would develop a vaccine.
I soaked up information, learning that scientists have been studying coronaviruses, which cause not just COVID but also SARS and MERS, for half a century. mRNA vaccines are hardly new either, as they had been studied for the flu, Zika, rabies and cytomegalovirus.
The influx of funds and laser-like focus of the world’s scientific community meant that this 50-year-old foundation could be built upon quickly, without skipping any steps. All of this had happened without most people paying attention, so it seemed like the vaccine had been developed overnight.
Finally, eight months after we first went into lockdown, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine under an emergency use authorization. My favorite part of social media quickly became vaccine selfies. Every time I saw a friend getting vaccinated, I told myself that it would soon be my turn. Every needle in every arm brought us closer to ending this pandemic.
I finally got vaccinated in February 2021 after hunting down a vaccine like my life depended on it — because it did. I felt like a contestant in the Hunger Games as I booked appointments for my husband and myself, a process that involved three different family members on four different devices while waiting on hold on two different phones. I cried with relief as a syringe delivered that life-saving vaccine into my arm.
We were in a race against time, against COVID spreading and mutating. I knew that vaccinating children was an important part of reaching herd immunity. I felt confident that my children, ranging in age from 6 to 15, would be able to get vaccinated within months, too.
When my older two kids, both teenagers, were able to be vaccinated, they got their jabs within hours of approval. My normally needle-phobic son was so eager to do simple things like ride the bus and go into Target again that he could not roll up his sleeve fast enough.
My older daughter went back to in-person school, and my son started seeing friends again. Their lives improved immeasurably, and my stress level stopped skyrocketing every time they left the house.
But my younger two children were left in limbo. There was no clear timeline for when they would be able to get vaccinated. My hope sank when it became clear that they would not be able to get vaccinated before the start of the 2021-22 school year. Then I lost hope that they would be able to be vaccinated in September. Or October.
I had no doubt that the vaccine was safe and effective. I did not want the process to be rushed, but I was still impatient and wanted my kids to be protected.
Out of desperation to keep my kids healthy and safe, I started looking for vaccine trials for them. The mom network always comes through. We traded information with lightning speed whenever we heard about a vaccine trial enrolling children ages 5 to 11. We sent phone numbers, links to study sites and enrollment forms to one other, sometimes late at night. I even considered flying my kids to Texas if necessary to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.
I got on waitlists for at least half a dozen studies. Email after email from study sites came in telling me that unfortunately, my kids could not enroll in one study or another due to unprecedented demand that took the study coordinators by surprise.
Finally, I received the call I had been waiting for. My two younger kids, ages 6 and 10, got the last two slots in a Moderna vaccine trial. The study site was two hours away from my house, but I didn’t hesitate to say we’d be there. We had won the golden ticket.
It was critical to me to get my kids’ consent to participate. I told them that there would be blood draws, nasal swabs and, of course, needles. I told them there could be unknown risks because even though millions of adults and older kids had received the vaccine, we didn’t yet know if kids their age would react differently. I also told them there was a chance they could do all this only to get a placebo and need to be stuck twice more.
I also told them that if they got vaccinated, they might feel sore and sick. They knew that if they did feel bad, it would likely last just a day or two. They agreed that this was worth the trade-off for being protected against COVID, which could make them very sick for much longer and which had already killed hundreds of children in the U.S. alone. I promised them lots of screen time and ice cream after their shots.
Before signing on the dotted line, I called my pediatrician to ask her opinion. She was elated for my children. I asked her if she would have enrolled her son in a COVID vaccine trial had he still been young. Her answer was an unequivocal yes. She assured me that she would be available if I had any concerns after their shots and that she thought I was making the right decision.
Under no circumstance other than a pandemic that completely disrupted their lives would I have even considered enrolling my child in a medical study. Only because of the gravity of COVID and the enormous benefit of having them vaccinated early would I even consider any vaccine or treatment that had not been fully vetted.
I have lived through a version of this before. When my son, now 6, was an infant, the U.S. was experiencing a preventable measles outbreak. He was too young to be vaccinated. I spent months terrified that he would die from a vaccine-preventable disease because he wasn’t the right age to get a shot.
My older daughter is medically complex, and I have sat by her hospital bed so many nights I’ve lost count. I’ve watched her struggle to breathe. I’ve lived in a home filled with oxygen tanks, nebulizers and a cabinet full of medication required to keep a child alive.
Many of my friends have medically complex children, too, and I’ve visited more than one in the hospital while their child was kept unconscious, reliant on a ventilator to breathe. If these children had not been sedated, they would have been in pain and distress. I’ve sat with friends who have lost a child. Their grief is boundless.
With story after story of children’s hospitals reaching capacity flashing across my screens, I was relieved that I could now take a step to protect my children from that fate.
When we walked into the study site, we first met the study doctor. He told me that he had tried to enroll his own young children in the study but was prohibited from doing so because the risk was too great that someone in his position might skirt the rules and knowingly give their kids the vaccine. He volunteered that he would not have taken on this role if he did not have enough confidence in the vaccine being safe and effective.
I confirmed that if my kids got the vaccine rather than the placebo, it would be half of the adult dose — the amount Phase I of the trial concluded was safe and effective for younger kids. My kids each had a physical, COVID test and vials of blood drawn to get baseline information about their health. All together, they will go to the study site seven times to track their response to the vaccine and their overall health, as will the thousands of other children enrolled in the study.
I fought back tears of relief as needles entered their arms.
After their shots, the study nurse observed my kids for 30 minutes. She checked their temperatures and their arms for signs of redness or swelling before sending us home. I was given strict instructions on how to record my kids’ temperatures and any side effects on an app each day. I was told to expect a follow-up call to discuss how they did eight days later. I left with the study physician’s phone number so that I could call anytime, day or night, to discuss any concerns.
In the hours after their shots, I hovered over my children asking them how they felt. Does anything hurt? Does anything feel off? You can breathe OK, right? I was met with eye rolls and answers of “Yes, Mom.”
Later that night, my daughter flinched when I accidentally touched her arm. My son said he did not want to go to sleep because his arm hurt so much and he was afraid he would roll over and hurt his arm more. Having experienced similar symptoms when I received my shots, my hope grew that both children had just been vaccinated against COVID.
Over the next few days, my kids’ arms remained sore but life went on as usual. They both had redness and some swelling around the injection site. I asked everyone I knew with a medical background what they thought of these symptoms. They all agreed that a saline placebo was unlikely to have caused them.
“The risk of COVID has certainly not been eliminated, but knowing that my kids have strong protection against the disease brings me both joy and relief. We are thinking more about the future.”
After a few days, my children’s pain subsided. Exactly 10 days after his shot, my son developed a splotchy, red rash on his back and at the injection site that lasted a day. I hit the internet to discover that not only was this a known and harmless side effect of the Moderna vaccine, but it was likely a sign of a strong immune response.
Their second visit was very similar to their first. This time, however, both kids had miserable days after their shots. My daughter developed a headache that kept her in bed for a day. My son developed a fever of 102. Both woke up the next morning completely fine.
I diligently reported their reactions, and I got a call from the study site asking for more information and making sure they were OK. We will have five more visits with the study site over the course of a year to track my kids’ immune response and physical health, and to make sure there are no delayed effects.
To be sure that my kids had been vaccinated and had not just been experiencing a placebo effect, I had their COVID antibodies independently tested. The study site told me that this was OK to do as long as they did not know the result to ensure the study remained blinded.
Two weeks after my kids’ second shot, we got chocolate fondue to celebrate “fully vaccinated day,” a day we had been looking forward to for a year and a half.
Being on the other side of having vaccinated children is thrilling beyond words. The risk of COVID has certainly not been eliminated, but knowing that my kids have strong protection against the disease brings me both joy and relief. We are thinking more about the future. My daughter is planning a sleepover with a friend who will be eligible to be vaccinated soon. My son is looking forward to an afternoon at an arcade.
We have not been on a family vacation in over two years, and we are thinking about potential destinations now that my entire family is vaccinated. I don’t worry as much about my children getting COVID at school. I worry a lot less about a surge during the impending winter months. For the first time in a long time, I have hope that my family will survive this pandemic healthy and whole.
CORRECTION: This story has been amended to correct an error about when vaccine development on coronaviruses first began.