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Vaccines for children won’t work if too many are non-compliant

A playground slide, ultimately, pushed me to start looking for appointments.

My family had been walking by a playground not far from our house when an unexpected sighting of friends caused my nine-year-old son to jump into a game of tag.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

The laughter and squeals made the pandemic feel a fading background. You’re it. No, you’re it. None of the children was wearing a mask, but the risk of them spreading anything to one another seemed minimal. They were outside, playing a game that forced them to keep some distance. One child’s forward movement was met with another child’s dodge.

They were repelling magnets.

That is, until they weren’t.

My son was it and in pursuit of two other kids. They scurried up the slide, which was basically a slanted tube, and he followed.

I expected to see his head pop out the top or his feet come out the bottom, but minutes passed. The group had decided to play for a bit inside that tunnel. When they finally emerged, it was in a heap.

During other times, I would have seen a sweet scene in those tangled limbs.

At that moment, my only thought: I can’t put off looking for coronavirus vaccine appointments for my two sons.

Even before a vaccine was approved for children ages 5 to 12, I had seen parents online discussing when and where they should sign up to get their children those shots. A few even mentioned they had made appointments in advance with their paediatricians, which of course led others to ask the names of those doctors and where they were located. I have no doubt the phones at those offices immediately started ringing, and kept ringing.

That parents were trying to stand in line for those orange-capped vials even before they were available was encouraging.

Witnessing it left me with a sense that we might, finally, be heading towards the end of this dark tunnel.

But then, when it came time to hop on that train, I surprised myself. I hesitated.

I thought I would be among that first wave of parents refreshing the websites of CVS and Walgreens, looking for appointments. But I wasn’t.

I understood the eagerness of parents to get their children the vaccine.

I also understood the need to think long and hard about anything affecting your kids.

My hesitancy wasn’t really a hesitancy. More like a pause, really. But it was enough to make me realise that we have polarised the issue so much in this country that we might be leaving uncertain parents behind rather than pulling them onto the train with us.

I worry that we haven't created enough spaces where they can ask questions without judgment, request information in the languages they are most comfortable with, or talk openly about their fears. I worry that parents right now are scrolling past the Instagram photos of their friends’ children smiling while holding their vaccination cards, because it’s easier to avoid a decision than to wrestle with it.

In the week after the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 was authorised, more than 35,000 kids in Virginia had received their first dose, according to the state’s Department of Health.

That is a promising start, but that’s all it is. True change will not come until people and organisations can convince hesitant parents, including those in communities that aren’t their own, to understand that by getting their children vaccinated, they are protecting them.

They are also helping other parents move closer to getting what they need: relief.

The pandemic has been brutal to parents of young children. It has forced many to leave jobs and left others sacrificing their health to hold on to their income.

It has mentally and physically changed some of us; aged us, even.

Before the pandemic, I had a tiny cluster of grey hairs, so few that I could pluck them away. Now, they are woven into my brown hair. Once, when my seven-year-old son was younger, he asked me if white hairs came from heartbreak and I told him “sometimes”. He now refers to mine as my “heartbreaks”. I don’t correct him because in some ways that explanation feels more accurate than the scientific one.

During the pandemic, I have worried most about two of my family members: my dad and my older son. Both have respiratory conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus.

Because of that, we have not travelled to Texas to see my father in more than two years. My children haven’t sat with him at his kitchen table and dunked pan dulce in milk. They haven’t looked through the old watches he fixes and marvelled at how he brings them back to life. They haven’t hugged him. I haven’t hugged him.

I have been waiting on a children’s vaccine, so we can safely make that trip.

I have also been waiting on it so I can plan beyond a day again.

Like many parents in the Washington region, every morning when I drop my kids off at school, I don’t know if they will get sent home. It takes only one child to come in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus to thrust an entire class into quarantine and working parents into chaos. When children are forced to stay home, so, too, are their parents.

That will not change if only eager parents get on that train.

Some hesitant parents might just need a nudge to get their children vaccinated. Others might need a lot of convincing and scientific evidence.

I just needed to do my own research and see a reminder of what we are working towards: children getting to play together on slides, without masks or worries.

After we got home from the playground, I started looking for appointments. I booked two for later that week at a grocery store not far from our home.

The next morning — with those appointments still five days away — I went to pick up my children from school and found only my younger son waiting at the usual door. I was told I would need to go to a different side of the building to pick up his brother. That’s where they were keeping the kids who would need to quarantine.

A child in his class that day had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

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Published November 15, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated November 14, 2021 at 4:36 pm)

Vaccines for children won’t work if too many are non-compliant

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