COVID Vaccines Open Rifts Between Parents, Children

John Dillon

February 08, 2022

The picture of rebellious teenagers sneaking "shots" has widened beyond breaking into Mom and Dad's liquor cabinet. For some teens now, it means getting a COVID-19 vaccination without their parents' consent — and, unlike the cabinet raids for the booze, they have grownups willing to endorse the practice.

Since the US Food and Drug Administration first granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for teenagers in mid-2021, health officials have had to deal with a small subset of vaccine hesitancy where minors want the shot over the objections of their reluctant parents. The split has buoyed groups that were formed initially to convince teenagers to get vaccinated against other diseases.

When 14-year-old Arin Parsa of San Jose, California founded Teens for Vaccines in 2019 after a measles outbreak among unvaccinated children, "hardly anyone was interested," he said. "Many teens were into climate change and other causes. Then, when the pandemic hit, so many were suddenly aware."

Heavy Toll on Teens

Parsa's parents fully supported Teens for Vaccines, he said, but he quickly found out how "politicized" COVID shots had become.

"We find people who are sad, angry, and frustrated at this stage of the pandemic," he told Medscape Medical News. "The anti-vax lobby is riding the coattails of other movements. It has a very severe effect on their mental health. They can't go out with their friends and socialize."

Arin Parsa, left, founded Teens for Vaccines in 2019 after a measles outbreak among unvaccinated children. Here he's pictured with California State Sen. Richard Pan, MD, who
co-wrote the Teens Choose Vaccines Act.

In the pandemic's initial stages, children were less likely to fall sick with COVID, but the Omicron variant led to a dramatic increase in illnesses among young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that 3.5 million of the 11.4 million pediatric cases of the virus in the United States were reported in January 2022 alone. Meanwhile, vaccination rates for children aged 12-17, which were only 34% in June 2021 and lagged through the fall, are now at about 61% thanks to a sharp uptick during the Omicron surge, according to polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

No statistics are available on how many minors have received a COVID vaccine against their parents' wishes.

"It's not like there's a big movement," said Arthur Caplan, PhD, who heads the Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. He said he noticed a divide around the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines. "They were tied up with sexual behavior," he said, but "there were also some kids whose parents were really anti-vaxxers."

Parsa said his and similar teen-oriented groups, such as VaxTeen, seek to educate their teen cohort, convince family members of the vaccines' benefits, and to connect them with resources to get a shot. They also strive to change laws to make it easier for teenagers to receive the vaccine.

Consent laws vary from state to state (and within states), and proposed changes are afoot — some to loosen the law and some to tighten them. Currently a 14-year-old in Alabama may get a COVID shot without parental permission, according to VaxTeen. In California, minors may receive the HPV shot without parental consent but not a COVID vaccine, although groups like Teens for Vaccines are pushing to change that. A bill now before the state legislature, the Teens Choose Vaccines Act (Senate Bill 866), would allow adolescents aged 12 and older to be able receive any FDA-approved vaccine — including COVID vaccines — without parental consent.

A second bill in California, the Keep Schools Open and Safe Act, would add the COVID-19 vaccines to the required list of immunizations needed to attend school in the state as well as eliminate the "personal belief" exemption against immunization. 

California Sen. Richard Pan, MD (D-6th District), co-wrote both bills with fellow Democrat Sen. Scott Wiener (D-11th District) and teen advocates from Teens for Vaccines and Generation Up, who helped draft the language in consultation with the lawmakers.  

"As a pediatrician, I have seen all manner of situations where the requirement for a signed form has prevented teens from being able to get a vaccine that otherwise they and their guardians approved of them getting," Pan told Medscape. "As a father, I don't want to see my kids or any teen that wishes to protect themselves from deadly diseases unable to do so, particularly as we continue to fight off the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. I always encourage parents or teens that have questions about vaccines to speak directly with their pediatrician."

Lawmakers in Philadelphia passed a provision last year to allow anyone age 11 or over to get the COVID vaccine without parental permission, keeping it in line with other vaccinations like hepatitis or HPV. "People from surrounding counties have come into the city, but it hasn't been a huge rush," James Garrow, MPH, a spokesman for the city's Department of Health, told Medscape.

Strive for Collaboration, but Listen to the Children

Experts say the best solution is to for a doctor to meet with minors and their reluctant parents to get them on board for a COVID shot.

"Physicians are still the trusted messengers," said Emma Olivera, MD, a pediatrician in suburban Chicago who advises groups that combat COVID misinformation.

Olivera said she often finds that internet-savvy teenagers have access to more information than older people, including their parents.  

Thanks to COVID policies, office meetings are "difficult to do," NYU's Caplan added. In such a meeting, Caplan said he would try to convince the parents that the shots are needed for their children to stay in school or play sports. In the end, he said minors should get the shot but would also notify the parents before that happens: "My duty is to them."

If parents take opposite stances, the pro-vaccine side is likely to prevail, even in California, said Patrick Baghdaserians, JD, a family law attorney in Pasadena. Baghdaserians said he is now representing a father who wants his teenager to get vaccinated but the mother doesn't. "The court will fall on our side," he predicted.

John Dillon is a medical writer in Boston.

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