I was alone with both my kids when I got the call asking if I was still interested in including them in the KidCOVE study — Moderna’s Covid vaccine clinical trial for children under 12. A cold but sunny early November day at the Chicago Botanic Garden, the 16-month-old watching employees hang holiday lights, the 4-and-a-half-year-old working each individual finger into his glove. My phone rang and I buckled one in the stroller and let the other climb some rocks. I listened to the coordinating nurse as best I could, asking a question or two, explaining like an idiot that I was with the kids now, as if that would humanize us, as if it would make the reality of what I was so readily agreeing to more palatable.
In late summer I’d put both of their names on what then seemed like an interminable waiting list. Delta was rising, my oldest was due to resume in-person school for the first time since March 2020, and my youngest — a true pandemic baby — still barely went anywhere that wasn’t our home or outside. I was terrified and scrambling and didn’t think about the waivers I’d end up signing, the three hours in a steamy ER cubicle, the blood my 16-month-old would spray onto the nurse’s white cable-knit sweater. If we could end this cycle of loneliness and fear, we would do it.
After I booked us an appointment (“they’re filling up fast”), I wondered if I’d been hasty. Was I sending my kids off to the front lines? Yes, someone has to be first, but should that someone be my child? The daily data collection might be worth it for the prize of Covid protection, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll come out of these next few weeks immune. As in any worthwhile study, Moderna has included a control group: what if the kids go through all the blood draws and temperature takings and it turns out they’ve been given the placebo? This is, after all, an experiment. Things could go wrong. Things could go perfectly.
Ultimately, it came down to us, these particular children’s parents, weighing risk and reward as we’ve done every day since early 2020.
I was simultaneously excited by and ashamed of the opportunity we’d been given. Vaccination is good! Finally, after almost two years, we might get some peace of mind! But my social media feed of nonstop “so proud of little so and so for choosing to get vaccinated” highlighted the impossibility of my own littlest one’s choice, almost conned me into thinking it should be my child’s choice, despite having my kids on the recommended vaccine schedule for everything else when I know they’d rather skip straight to the lollipop. Parents choose things for their kids all the time. Parenting is making decisions for your children. That is the literal job. The fact that we think kids deserve a say in public health is just a sign of how diseased our discourse has become. Isn’t it? Also parenting: second guessing our decisions.
Friends and family had varying opinions. Allow the one kid, not the other. Allow the other, not the one. How could you? How do I sign up? Ultimately, it came down to us, these particular children’s parents, weighing risk and reward as we’ve done every day since early 2020. We’ve been waiting for this, the most studied vaccine in history, since before my daughter was born. Once it was authorized for their age groups, we always intended to get our kids vaccinated immediately. We have a responsibility as members of a larger community to step up and help others, when we can. We trust that these healthcare professionals and scientists have our kids’ best interests in mind. We want to teach our kids the importance of letting yourself experience short-term discomfort on behalf of the greater good.
Those against vaccinating children will point out that this vaccine (though all signs point emphatically to longterm safety and efficacy) is relatively new, and there’s only a personal .03% chance of pediatric Covid death. But what about everyone who isn’t us, personally? It’s clear that kids can spread the virus, and once spread, it targets the vulnerable. Do we just wait and cross our fingers? Do we say, “well yeah, that’s sad, but it’s not me?” This isn’t what it means to live in a society, nor do I want it to be. I’m willing to take on a bit of risk if it assures someone else’s protection. I’m willing to teach my children how to calculate and take on risk that will make them good citizens.
This is when I told myself we were doing something important. This is when I was parenting: teaching my children resilience, teaching my children about pain.
Thus last week we found ourselves in an empty part of the Lurie Children’s Hospital ER, my 4-year-old in his Spiderman mask (I told him he could wear the whole costume, but being much cooler than me, he declined), my 16-month-old waving through the clear plastic wall, thrilled to be interacting with new humans. First they gave the kids a Covid test, at which my son is a pro. (He gets tested at school weekly and informed us that he’s done this “forty or fifty-five times.”) Next was a full physical examination. Both kids in turn sat on the little cushioned chair and hammed it up for the nurse, pointing out how bright the city lights looked out the window in November’s early dark. My little one said, “boom boom boom” like she does with our toy stethoscope at home. When it came time to collect blood, my son was stoic, sitting in my lap while the nurse filled the vials, anticipating his new coloring book. My daughter howled — purpler than she’d been since birth, aghast at my betrayal. The nurse couldn’t get enough blood from the one arm, so she had to find a new vein in the other. This is when I told myself we were doing something important. This is when I was parenting: teaching my children resilience, teaching my children about pain.
The vaccine itself, a little vial, a little watery shot to the thigh, was the simplest part of the afternoon. Much easier than entertaining a 1-year-old in a warm room, getting a 1-year-old to sit still while we weighed her, helping a 1-year-old eat a Potbelly sandwich without a table or a bib. Neither kid had any immediate side effects. The baby ran a very low fever the next three days and was a bit of a grouch, but she’s also clearly teething so it’s hard to call causation. For seven days, we’ll track their injection sites, their temperatures, their moods. We’ll do a telehealth visit, come back in to get the next dose in the cycle four weeks after the first. At some point, they’ll unblind the study and we’ll know if our kids are protected.
“When you were 16 months old,” I’ll say to my daughter, looking back, “you helped save the world.”
Right now, we watch and record on our downloaded data app, we use the rectal thermometer and the ear thermometer and interpret every spit-up and whine. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they did get the placebo. Maybe they’re halfway to immunity. Either way, the whole thing is significant. “When you were 16 months old,” I’ll say to my daughter, looking back, “you helped save the world.”
Well, a part of the world. Because the world these kids inherit necessarily will not be the world that I grew up in, nor the world we live in now. Climate disaster is already here, inequality keeps growing, our political systems are fragile. What can a parent do? It’s simply impossible to shield our kids, to guarantee that they won’t suffer. We don’t know what their future looks like, but we can try to prepare them. They can handle adversity. They can care for their community. They can trust science and usher in change. Maybe soon my babies will be able to eat at indoor restaurants, have big unmasked birthday parties, go to Target just to hang. Maybe they’ve got saline running through them and we’ll have to tough it out a little longer. Regardless, that Botanic Garden holiday lightshow is in a few weeks. We’ll bundle up and wander through the (hopefully) thirty-degree evening as we’ve wandered through the last twenty months: in awe, together, bravely, and mostly outdoors.