When the pandemic came for Georgia, Lauren Rymer had to make a snap choice: her mother’s safety or what she believed was best for her young child.
She locked down her family for the better part of last year, living with her mother, Sharon Mooneyhan, who has multiple sclerosis, and protecting her by keeping her son Jack, 5, out of kindergarten to avoid routine household exposure to COVID. “I didn’t want my mom to miss out on being with her only grandchild,” Rymer said.
So school was scrapped for mushroom hunts in the forest between her work Zoom calls, Legos and an intergenerational exploration of a backyard chicken coop. The upside was that she and her mother would not have to live in fear of a life-ending snuggle at bedtime.
Last week, Jack, now 6, donned a superhero costume and hit the local CVS in Lawrenceville, Georgia, to get a COVID shot, his first step toward a return to school and a full life beyond their suburban Atlanta home.
“This vaccine is much bigger than a shot in the arm,” Rymer said. “It’s a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Millions of American parents have spent the better part of the last two years anxiously viewing their youngest family members through a dual lens: as the small souls crushed by the isolation of lockdowns or periodic quarantines and also as potentially fearsome vectors of infection dwelling in their midst. With another wave of COVID sweeping through parts of the country, the worry has not subsided altogether for so many families.
But for some, like the Rymers, finally getting children vaccinated this past month put a major piece of a protection puzzle in place for severely vulnerable adults who are immunocompromised, fighting cancer or coping with other diseases. That sense of relief has intensified with the holiday season here and all the trimmings and trepidation that accompany this year’s family gatherings.
Dr. Elizabeth Pietralczyk, who takes drugs that suppress her immune system, fought back tears as she described the terror she felt of becoming ill and trying to hide her fears from her daughter, Sybil, 6.
“The biggest thing for me was that I didn’t want her to get sick and then if something happened to me have her feel she was responsible,” said Pietralczyk, a family physician who is the sole wage earner in her household.
Sybil got her first shot recently, lifting the canopy of anxiety that hung over the family of four.
“I felt like I was letting go of a breath I didn’t know I was holding,” Pietralczyk said.
Parents and children have flocked to vaccination sites after school, lining up outside places like the American Museum of Natural History in New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 13%, or slightly more than 3.5 million of the nation’s 28 million children ages 5 through 11, had already received their first dose by Tuesday, in the month since that age group was granted eligibility.
“Coping with fear and uncertainty, especially over an extended period, is so hard on our brains,” said Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and clinical professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “It’s akin to a major tax on cognitive function. Adults with health issues who have small children have been living with heightened levels of fear and uncertainty for almost two years.”
The central goal of vaccinating children against the coronavirus has largely been for their own health and, more broadly, to ease the strain on school and day care systems that are in a perpetual cycle of shutdowns, testing and reopenings as children become infected. For some families with several generations under one roof or worrying about a family member with a severe illness, the vaccine for young children is a crucial barricade of protection for the most vulnerable adults. It is a hug recovery program, with giant stakes.
“This community has a lot of multigenerational families,” said Nancy Valentin, director of health equity at the Northwest Center, a nonprofit in Chicago. “If you walk into one single-family home, you’re going to see different folks living there, whether it’s, like, grandparents or if people are having a hard time paying for rent — they’ll just blend families in one house.”
The organization recently ran a vaccine clinic in the heavily Polish and Latino communities, where some have hesitated to get their children vaccinated. MariCarmen Zavala brought her 8-year-old son, Louis Perez.
“It’s really important for me to get the vaccine for him so that my son is able to do the activities that he likes to do,” she said. “My two sisters-in-law don’t want to vaccinate their children based on the misinformation they hear. So he will help protect the ones who are not.”
In Ely, Minnesota, two of Michelle Greener’s children, Sophie, 10, and Liv, 11, share a rare disease — Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — with her husband, and she has a 16-year-old she adopted when the girl’s mother, the family babysitter, died in 2019. That child, Emma, is severely disabled and at very high risk for complications from COVID.
Greener, 38, takes care of all three while her husband goes to his manufacturing job. First she was vaccinated, and the outside world belonged largely to her alone. Then, a shot for her husband: another worry down. Next came Emma, who had emergency surgery during the pandemic. Greener stayed with her in the Twin Cities and limited contact with her younger children, who at the time were too young to be vaccinated.
“The day they approved the vaccine for 12 and up is the very day I drove two hours down to Duluth,” said Greener, whose house is so distant that she spends nights staring at the northern lights. “I cried all the way in and cried all the way out.” One child had reacted poorly to another vaccine in the past.
“That was very emotional, a little stressful not knowing how my younger daughter would handle it,” Greener said of Liv. “I eat and breathe medical. That’s all I’ve done. All I think about is how I am going to keep these kids alive. Now we have done everything we can do to keep Emma alive. At this point, I am just dependent on the rest of the world.”
Immunized children have also become a force shield for families in places where overall vaccination rates are low. “I definitely have my concerns because of the area I am in,” said Lauren Patterson, 36, a government worker in Atlanta with lupus and other medical conditions. She is a single mother to Zora, 5. Only half the state of Georgia is fully vaccinated.
“When I found out they were giving vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds, I immediately started scouring sources to get her an appointment,” she said. “I had always had to tell her this virus could hurt Mommy or even kill Mommy. So the pain is double when you have to comfort their feels but at the same time reinforce the harsh reality. We couldn’t kiss good night for so long. Having that mom guilt that is prevalent for all of us was so strong.”
Pietralczyk said the issue was much the same in Alaska, where she lives. It has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and its caseloads have risen with the delta surge. She watched warily when her children wandered across the street to the neighbors.
“The whole family came down with COVID,” she said. “I don’t know if they are vaccinated. I didn’t want her to play with them, but I also didn’t want it to be a stigma in the relationship by prying into their personal life. That was a stressful two weeks.”
For Rymer, the bottomless patience of her employer became her anchor, and the concentrated time with just her son and mother were gifts.
Now she is happy to leave those days in the rearview mirror.
“Our circle has been small enough that we have been the most important people in Jack’s world,” said her mother, Mooneyhan. “But I know that the maturing and the worldliness you get from other people your age around you outweighs my selfish grandmother ideas. I am excited about his circle getting wider again.”