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Fear, freedom, and keeping mom safe: 12-15 yr olds on why they're getting vaccinated

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio

Allegra Blackwood is 13 years old. She’s in seventh grade, and has written about 80 pages of her fantasy/sci-fi novel so far, though she’s still editing. And even as her friends went back to school in-person this spring, she’s stayed remote. Her mom, Karla Blackwood, has health conditions that put at her at higher risk if she contracts COVID. 

“It's also been really hard, because I really want to keep up my grades, and I want to keep up my friendships and my relationships with people,” Blackwood says, sitting high up inside a sun-filled suite overlooking the University of Michigan football stadium. “But I've always tried to persevere and be the best I can.”

For the last several months, Michigan Medicine’s converted the whole floor into a mass COVID vaccine clinic. On Friday, it’s filled with mostly parents and their 12 to 15-year-old children, here to get the first available shots following the FDA’s expansion of Pfizer’s Emergency Use Authorization earlier this week.

Talking to these kids, some of whom say they got COVID earlier in the school year, offers a window into their lives this last year. Wearing Harry Potter-themed masks, thumbing their phones, and waiting out the 15-minute observation period, they run the gamut from blase to nervously excited about this first vaccine -- and the return to normalcy they hope it signals. 

“I hope I'll be able to go outside with my friends, and maybe not wear my mask all the time,” Blackwood says. “If there’s not too many people around.” 

That constant vigilance is hard to let go of. 

“We’ve been very careful, and wiping down groceries,” Blackwood says. “Which I must say, like, unpacking groceries is annoying enough. But wiping them all down?” she sighs. “It’s torture.” 

Her mom, Karla Blackwood, is hoping this will mean her daughter will start to feel “a little lighter.”

“I'm excited for her to just feel a little bit more freedom, or feel more space in terms of all the rituals and the routines that we constructed this year...And I think that's going to take some time as we all are reintroduced to society. To not have that fear, you know?”

Nothing about the way her kid has had to live feels natural for children, Karla Blackwood says (she’s also a psychologist.)

“They need to be able to laugh with abandon and not worry about, you know, cleaning off the surface or whatever...Because she does worry about some of my health issues. And I don't want her to have to have that burden, you know? But it is a reality. It has been a reality.”

Max Hollander, age 12, is here with his dad, Lee. Max says he’s looking forward to not having to wear

Credit Kate Wells / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Max Hollander.

  a mask all the time, too. And, as the last member of the family to get vaccinated, it means his mom is more protected too.

“I was a little bit worried about my mom, because she said that it would probably be really bad if she got it,” Hollander says. “But like now we both have the vaccine. She got both of them. And I have one of them.”

Summer will be easier, he says. Will he get to have sleepovers now? He looks up, puzzled.

“Um, I’m not really sure, because I’ve never had a sleepover.”

That afternoon, the cafeteria at Ypsilanti Community High School is filling up with a similar crowd of parents and young teens. 

Seegar Durussel, age 14, is sitting next to her mom, Sandra Wiitala. They’ve driven over here from their home in Manchester. And Durussel says at first, she was nervous.

“Before, I was really worried and, like, scared, even before I was eligible. Because I'm like, young. And I don't know everything about, like, how developing a vaccine works. But then after my mom said, ‘OK, we're going to get the vaccine,’ and like, I was eligible, I was actually excited,” she said. “Because now I get to go out and actually do things, like after, of course, my second dose.”

Wiitala says it wasn’t a difficult choice whether or not to get her children vaccinated: if it meant they were more protected, she was in. 

“I have a 16-year-old [too] and they were both very hesitant early on in the process, because it’s kind of like a first thing for them. But I was very excited when the vaccine was approved, and I've been on like a cliff's edge waiting for it to be approved for her,” she said. “Because that means our whole family is going to get vaccinated.And I'm just going to cry thinking about how relieved I am just to get it started. It's been a struggle, having young adults in the house and have to try to keep them safe, and make life and death decisions for them every day for a year. I’m excited for the freedom that it’s going to give them.”

So is Durussel.

“I’m going to be able to go outside and like, not necessarily be as worried as I was before,” she said cautiously.  

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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