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As teens head back to school, some parents still hesitant about COVID-19 shots

Three people stand on the front step of a home.
From left, Bert Anderson, 12-year-old Brennan Anderson and Ben Anderson outside of their Rogers, Minn., home on Wednesday. The Anderson family has almost all been vaccinated, with the exception of Brennan.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to Minnesotans in March, Bert Anderson didn't hesitate to get her shots.

"I got vaccinated as soon as I could. I was on it,” said Anderson, 38, who lives in Rogers, Minn., with her husband and three kids. 

Anderson has asthma, and she worried COVID would make her especially sick if she was exposed.

"I felt like, in watching a lot of my friends who got COVID, it was kind of a crapshoot, how they responded,” she said. “And so … it was a risk I was not willing to take."

Her husband, Ben, 39, said he was vaccinated right away, too. 

But for this couple, who have inoculated their children against other viruses, getting a COVID-19 shot for their 12-year-old son Brennan has been less clear cut. 

Ben Anderson said he'd like to know more about the long-term effects of the vaccine in younger populations. 

"I know [that] how they came up with this type of vaccine has been in the works for 20 years. But there's also never been a long-term study on kids."

With the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spreading widely in Minnesota, leading to a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths among younger people, the state is making a big push to get more teens vaccinated. They even qualify for $100 gift cards if they get shots before Sunday.

Getting more teens vaccinated before they're in school is crucial, said Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse. 

"I think for all families who will be transitioning back to school in the next few weeks, getting everyone in your household, who is 12 years of age and older fully vaccinated before the school year starts, should be No. 1 on everyone's back to school checklist this year,” she said. 

Rare side effects

To date, about 183,000 12- to 17-year-olds in Minnesota have gotten both of their COVID-19 shots — roughly one-fourth of this population, according to census data. In recent weeks, state health officials say vaccination among this age group has more than doubled as the start of school gets closer.

COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death from the virus. Right now, the Pfizer vaccine is available to all kids 12 and older, while the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines are available to people 18 and older. 

Side effects associated with all three vaccines are rare. One side effect that researchers are monitoring closely are cases of heart inflammation in a very small percentage of teenagers after vaccination.

A COVID-19 infection can affect the heart, too.

Ben and Bert Anderson said they’ve always vaccinated their kids against other diseases, like measles. But this vaccine is different for them because it’s so new, said Bert.

“Historically speaking, there are not really long-term side effects with vaccines,” Bert Anderson said. “But this is a different kind of vaccine. And so what if this is the one vaccine that has some long-term side effects that we don't know about until the future, and then it's too late, and then I made this decision, you know, for my son.”

More kids hospitalized

For most of the pandemic, severe cases of COVID-19 and deaths in children have been rare, too.

But Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said those numbers are starting to shift, with about 2 percent of cases among people 19 and younger resulting in hospitalizations. Late last year, during the fall surge, it was less than 1 percent. 

"While there was a perception early on that the virus was really of very little concern for children and young adults, we know there are sad exceptions,” she said. “The recent data on the delta spike shows that young people can, indeed, contract COVID-19, and it's really important that they take precautions."

Meanwhile, vaccine trials for kids younger than 12 continue. 

Mayo Clinic vaccine expert Dr. Gregory Poland said these trials are taking longer because the Food and Drug Administration has asked vaccine manufacturers for more data to ensure the shots are safe for children — and those trials just started a few months ago. 

He said vaccines operate differently in different age groups. But he says the benefits of getting kids vaccinated against COVID-19 outweigh the risk of rare side effects.

Heading back to school

Vaccination rates are playing a role in how school districts are planning for the coming school year. In some areas, masks will be optional, regardless of vaccination status. 

That's the case in Brennan Anderson's middle school. He said he's fine with wearing masks, but may not in seventh grade if he's in the minority. 

"If I do wear a mask, it's gonna feel awkward probably."

Bert Anderson said she wishes the district would require masks for all so kids don't have to make a choice. She said mask-wearing — and vaccination — has been viewed with some skepticism in her community. 

"It's a lot to ask a middle schooler, especially a seventh-grader to take on the responsibility to stand up to the culture around him who's probably not going to wear a mask."

Earlier this month, Brennan said he'd like to get the vaccine — for safety and to avoid some of the awkwardness of masking in school when no one else is. 

"I really, really badly want the vaccine. I've always had a mindset of whatever I can do to help stop this virus, I'll be willing to take the risk, which is why I was fine with masks,” he said. 

But more recently, Bert Anderson said Brennan has been waffling on whether he wants the COVID-19 shot. 

Meanwhile, she and her husband are still weighing whether to let Brennan get vaccinated. 

Ben Anderson said he wishes more adults had gotten the vaccine earlier, to stop the virus from mutating into a more contagious strain. 

"That would have been my hope, that enough adults took it seriously and got the vaccine so we didn't have to rely on all of our kids to pull our numbers up,” he said. 

But Ben Anderson said his growing concern over the delta variant may end up being the deciding factor in letting Brennan get his shot soon.

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