Editor’s Note: Syra Madad, DHSc, MSc, MCP is an infectious disease epidemiologist, senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program at NYC Health + Hospitals, health and safety lead at the Enhanced Investigations Unit of NYC Test & Trace, and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She tweets @syramadad. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
So, guys, who wants to be a superhero? That was the question I asked my two sons about getting vaccinated against Covid-19.
On November 3, the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 started – a significant milestone in our fight to end the pandemic. The White House estimates nearly 1 million children in this age group have already received their first shot of the two-dose Pfizer series and another 700,000 appointments are scheduled in the “coming days,” including for my two boys, Ammar and Hasan.
I recently wrote about why I’m going to vaccinate my kids, sharing three specific reasons. One: for their protection. By being vaccinated, they will have a reduced risk of suffering from severe illness, hospitalization, death or experiencing Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). Two: for our collective societal protection. We can’t truly end this pandemic until we have more immunity in the population, and children play a big role in that community immunity. And, three: to resume the pre-pandemic activities we enjoyed doing as a family.
While my entire family, including my children, were infected with the virus that causes Covid-19 in April 2020, my kids’ immune protection might not be strong enough now to ward off re-infection, or be as durable or reliable as vaccine-induced immunity.
Studies show antibodies generated from previous infection may decrease over time and some people may not develop long-term immunity at all. Estimates in the US show that about 38% of children ages 5-11 have evidence of prior Covid-19 infection. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all eligible children get fully vaccinated regardless of history of infection.
My eldest son, Ammar, is 8 years old and is in third grade. He’s a bit more risk-tolerant than my younger son, Hasan, who is 5 years old and in kindergarten. Hasan, when given the opportunity, can talk an earful about Covid-19 and the intricacies of the immune system. His explanation of how the body fights the virus and generates antibodies is one of the most adorable conversations I’ve ever had with him. They’re both great kids who have been fascinated by the Marvel superhero universe. Guests who come to our home usually get a whole costume parade by the boys who dress up and pretend to fight off the bad guys.
So much has been and will be said about vaccinating kids against Covid-19. I talk to family, friends, community members, colleagues and patients about it, and I’ve written about it. But this is about kids – so talking to my kids about getting vaccinated and allowing them to share their thoughts is also an important part of the process. In preparation for Ammar and Hasan’s Covid-19 vaccine appointment, I sat down with them to discuss the vaccine and how they feel about getting vaccinated.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mom: So, guys, who wants to be a superhero?
Ammar: Me! I want to be Iron Man and Captain America!
Hasan: And I want to be Black Panther and Spider-Man!
Mom: Did you know that by getting vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus, you’re acting like a superhero? The vaccine not only helps protect you against the virus and keeps you protected, but it also helps make sure you don’t spread the virus to other people and get them sick. Just like superheroes, you will be helping other people by also protecting them.
Hasan: Wow! In my school, my teacher is vaccinated and she’s also helping stop the virus from spreading. And so my friends are safe too because she’s vaccinated.
Mom: That’s right, Hasan. Do you want to be just like your teacher and help protect yourself and your friends, too?
Hasan: Yes, because at recess there are a lot of kids playing together and I want to be more protected.
Mom: Do guys know if any of your friends in school have been vaccinated against Covid-19 yet and are kids talking about the vaccine?
Ammar: One of my friends said he’s going to get the vaccine. I’m going to tell him congratulations when I see him again.
Hasan: No, I don’t know any friend in school who said they got the vaccine but maybe they don’t know it’s available so I will tell them it’s available now and that I will get the vaccine.
Mom: Mommy and Daddy are vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus, what do you think about that?
Ammar: I’m happy because you are protected from the virus. I don’t want you to get sick. I don’t want you to die.
Mom: Do you want to be protected too?
Ammar: Yes. I want to get the vaccine as soon as possible. Can we go tomorrow?
Mom: No, we have our appointment next week. Since you have a runny nose and cough, we have to wait until you feel better.
Ammar, you were just tested for Covid-19 because you weren’t feeling well, and we wanted to make sure you didn’t have the virus before going back to school. How did you feel when you were getting tested at the doctor’s office?
Ammar: I didn’t like it all. I didn’t like the stick (swab) the doctor put in my nose. I don’t want to do it again.
Mom: Well, you know another benefit of getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is that you have a smaller chance of getting the virus so you wouldn’t have to get tested as often.
So, guys, when you get the Covid-19 vaccine what are you most excited about
Hasan: being a superhero!
Mom: What do you want to do after you’re vaccinated, since we can then do more activities safely like going to the movies, traveling to other places by airplane, seeing more friends and family and having play dates?
Ammar: I want to travel to Texas because I was born there.
Hasan: I don’t want to wear my mask anymore after I’m vaccinated.
Mom: When you’re vaccinated, you’re more protected from the virus so you don’t have to wear a mask in many places like when we’re around other people who are also vaccinated – but we’re going to have to keep our masks on a little while longer when we’re in school or inside a building where there’s a lot of people.
Ammar, I know you’re afraid of needles. What do you want to tell other kids to help prepare them for their Covid-19 vaccine like mommy taught you when you go for your flu shot every year?
Ammar: the needle is pointy but it’s only two seconds – it’s like a pinch for two seconds and then you get the protection so it will be OK. Just think about something you want to play with when you get home, so you don’t think about the shot.
Hasan: Don’t be scared, it’s just a shot. Shots are not scary, they protect people. And the doctor says good job and gives you a sticker or a candy after.
Hearing my boys’ excitement at protecting themselves and others makes me so proud. And once they are fully vaccinated, I will breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing that they are that much safer. In the meantime, I am continuing to prepare them for their appointment. These small tips, based in part on CDC advice and a guide that I helped to create for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, can help keep kids safe and stress-free when they get their Covid-19 vaccine.
• Ahead of your kids’ appointments, continue to practice Covid-safe behavior such as wearing a mask and watching your distance at the vaccine appointment.
• Keep kids hydrated and give them a snack before their vaccine appointments. This can help if they feel nervous, get dizzy or lightheaded.
• Dress the kids in loose, comfortable clothing. This will enable them to easily expose the arm.
• Give a pep talk on what to expect, just like any other vaccine appointment.
• Wait the recommended 15-30 minutes post-injection at the clinic to monitor for possible allergic reactions or serious side effects.
• Be prepared for common side effects after their vaccination including soreness in their arm, feeling tired or achy, having a headache, or getting a fever. Side effects usually resolve after one to two days.
• Enroll in V-SAFE. It’s a free tool that provides personalized health check-in after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine, a reminder to get a second dose, and to report any side effects children may experience to the CDC.
• Continue to practice Covid-safe behavior. It takes time for the body to build protection after any vaccination. Kids are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after administration of their second Covid-19 dose.