'Reasonable risk': As parents await a vaccine for kids, one family takes part in vaccine research

A family of four sits on a step.
Keturah and Dave Pestel with their daughters, 13-year-old Mirabel (center) and 9-year-old Aviana, outside of their Roseville, Minn., home on Wednesday. Both girls enrolled in the Moderna vaccine trials for children.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Keturah Pestel hoped a COVID-19 vaccine would eventually be developed — and when that happened, she assumed, it would be available for her whole family. 

"All along, I'd had this assumption that when the vaccine became available that everybody could take it,” she said. 

But as vaccines to fight COVID-19 rolled out late last year, the Roseville mom’s visions of carefree family vacations and after-school activities were dashed.  

“It was sometime in the fall, all of a sudden it hit me that our kids wouldn't automatically be eligible when the vaccine was first approved,” she said. 

The early scramble to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Minnesota has begun to slow down. But even as adults get their shots, there's an entire segment of the population that still can't get them: kids younger than 16, who make up about 20 percent of Minnesotans. 

But Pestel and her husband didn’t waste any time. They enrolled their children — Mirabel, 13, and Aviana, 9 — in the Moderna vaccine trial for children, which includes a cohort of kids from the Twin Cities.  

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A child's handwriting fills a notebook.
Thirteen-year-old Mirabel Pestel shows a journal entry where she wrote about her experience in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trials for children.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Mirabel said she wasn't sure at first whether she wanted to participate in the trial. She talked to her parents about what to expect — visits to the clinic, nose swabs to test for COVID-19, blood draws, monitoring for side effects — and then, of course, the two shots. 

But she said she also saw the prospect of getting a vaccine as a ticket to a more normal life — normal school, normal summer camp, normal gymnastics classes.

"I was nervous, but another thing that helped me be excited to get it was that it's something that will help me take the next step in getting back to normal, to hugging people and seeing people,” she said. 

And, she said, it would be cool to be part of history and scientific discovery. 

It will be weeks to months before any COVID-19 vaccine is approved for kids Mirabel’s age, while researchers assess whether the currently authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for children.

It will be even longer before it's approved for Aviana’s peers. 

Mayo Clinic pediatric infectious disease specialist Nipunie Rajapakse said that wait is by design: These are novel vaccines, and even though they have been proven safe and effective for adults, determining how they will affect kids requires additional study. 

Rajapakse said all three COVID-19 vaccines approved for adult use in the United States are in different stages of being tested for use in children 12 and older.

Moderna and Pfizer are also testing their vaccines on kids younger than 12. 

Rajapakse said vaccinating kids will be key to curbing the virus and reaching herd immunity. In Minnesota, state health officials have been raising the alarm over growing rates of infection among school-aged children and teens.

"We have these variants circulating and people starting to move around more and be back [to] in-person schooling, we are seeing younger people make up a higher proportion of infections,” Rajapakse said. 

Participants in the teen trial are given either a placebo or the same amount of vaccine as an adult.

Mirabel, who completed her second dose in February, isn't sure which one she got. But she had some post-shot achiness and fatigue, and suspects maybe she got the real thing.

Teens and adults in the COVID-19 vaccine trials are getting the same dose because their immune systems are basically the same, Rajapakse said. But kids younger than 12 are getting different doses.

"Usually what this looks like is using a lower dose, a middle dose and then a higher dose of the vaccine in a small number of children, monitoring their antibody response and closely monitoring any side effects they have, and then using that information to figure out the dose that provided the best protection with the least number of side effects,” Rajapakse said. 

Vaccines get the same level of scrutiny for safety and effectiveness for kids as they do for adults, she said.

If parents are considering enrolling their children in a vaccine study, it’s important to include kids in the decision-making process, Rajapakse said. The trials can be time-consuming — and there are a lot of visits to the clinic for blood work, shots and monitoring for side effects. 

Those are some of the many considerations Keturah Pestel and her family weighed as they discussed participation in the trials. 

Today, Pestel said they're still answering questions from friends and family about whether it was ethical to expose her daughter to a novel vaccine. 

But she said she'd rather take the opportunity for her daughters to get a shot that's been proven safe and effective in adults already than have them to continue to live with the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. 

"You can't keep your kid perfectly safe, but you want to take reasonable risks. We're trying to do that. I feel like this is a reasonable risk,” she said. “It's been proven out."

For now, Pestel’s younger daughter, Aviana, is waiting to hear when the Twin Cities cohort of the Moderna trial will begin for her age group. 

And Mirabel says she's looking forward to a summer vacation with extended family, where at least some of the group — possibly including her — is fully vaccinated against the virus.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.