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With the U.S. federal government’s approval and recommendation of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children between the ages of 12 and 15 comes the opportunity for “tweens” and teens to join others already inoculated amidst a pandemic that has already claimed over half a million lives nationwide.
And while it remains unclear if the DC Department of Health [DOH] will mandate the vaccine for students returning to school in the fall, some parents have been proactive and had their children vaccinated.
Meanwhile, others like Gaby L. Fraser, said they don’t want the government impeding on parents’ rights to make the decision on their own.
“I just don’t think it’s something that should be mandated. That’s a decision for parents and families to make — just like whether we want to send them back to school,” said Fraser, a mother and grandmother who lives in Ward 7 and frequently provides insights as a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education DC.
She said she took Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine soon after its release last year for her own health, joining others willing to waive their right to hold vaccine manufacturers liable for possible side effects. But for Fraser’s progeny, it has proven to be a different story.
Fraser’s college-aged grandchildren, for now, have opted out of taking the vaccine. Years prior, she faced a similar situation with her daughter about getting her child vaccinated against the human papillomavirus. That dialogue, Fraser said, culminated in her daughter, at Fraser’s urging, to take preventive steps against cervical cancer.
For the COVID-19 vaccine, however, Fraser has taken more of a nuanced stance, telling The Informer that she doesn’t fault anyone skeptical about taking it.
“It took scientists three years to develop the polio vaccine before it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration,” she said. “COVID-19 came up in early 2020 and they had the vaccine 10 months later. It’s not like scientists tested hundreds of thousands of people.”
To Mandate COVID-19 Vaccination or Not — That’s the Question
A survey recently commissioned by the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor found that less than one-third of parents would get their child vaccinated. Across the country, many school districts have stopped short of mandating the vaccine, choosing instead to encourage it and set up vaccination clinics.
The Informer sent two media inquiries to DOH, the first of which preceded the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendation of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children between 12 and 15 years old.
By April 22, when the Pfizer vaccine had only been approved for 16- and 17-year-olds, DOH said it hadn’t made a decision about whether returning students in that age group would be mandated to get the vaccine. As of press time, DOH had not answered our second inquiry about whether, given recent actions taken by the FDA and CDC, it would require the vaccine for returning students 12 and older.
Last week, DOH opened eight walk-up vaccination sites serving children 12 years and older with many venues located in the eastern portion of the District. Parents also utilized local clinics and scheduled appointments for their children at Children’s National Medical Center, George Washington University Hospital, Howard University Hospital and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
At RISE Demonstration Center, one of the eight walk-up sites, Jacque Patterson, at-large member for the D.C. State Board of Education, counted among those whose child received a COVID-19 vaccination. Patterson said his son wanted to be vaccinated out of a desire to safely congregate among peers and teachers in school next fall.
Over the last few weeks, Patterson has engaged in conversations with parents who expressed varying perspectives about vaccinating their children against COVID-19. He said those interactions helped to shape his opposition against mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for the upcoming school year.
“We should have our children vaccinated [but] I don’t think you can require it. I think every parent knows their child’s health needs,” said Patterson, a Southeast resident and parent of two District students.
“Those things need to be taken into consideration as [officials] talk to parents,” Patterson continued. “There’s a lot of nuance. You have to take health concerns and religion into consideration and not just say every child has to get the vaccine or they can’t return to school. That’s culturally unfair to parents.”
Anti-Vax Parents Offer Both Criticism and Resistance
Toward the end of last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) signed into law a bill allowing children 11 years and older to consent to vaccinations on their own. In the months preceding and following the D.C. Council’s overwhelming approval of the legislation, parents’ rights groups circulated a petition and vehemently spoke out against what they described as an assault on their sovereignty.
Proponents of the legislation pointed to the outbreaks of measles in cities and states with low vaccination rates in recent years. In 2018, the District’s measles vaccination rate for kindergartners stood at 81 percent, according to data collected by the CDC. This rate was lower than that of all 50 states.
D.C. law requires that students entering a District public or public charter school receive immunization against measles, mumps, polio, varicella, and other ailments unless their parents or guardians obtain a medical or religious exemption.
Throughout the pandemic, however, some parents have struggled to secure and update immunization records. In response, DOH launched an online portal earlier this month.
Regardless of what happens, one parent who requested anonymity said she’s not vaccinating her children against COVID-19 or any other disease for that matter.
“I’m not really a mom that does immunizations. I wasn’t even in agreement with the vaccine law passed by the D.C. Council last year,” said the parent, a Northwest resident and mother of five D.C. Public Schools students.
“Some conversations with parents have been fear-based,” she continued. “They don’t want to be sick, or [they know] so many people have died from COVID-19. People tell me I’m crazy but I have a lot of friends who haven’t been immunized and they’ve reached 35 and 40 years old with no issues.”