Triumphant: Arya Karki, 15, and Alex Karki, 12, after their recent vaccinations
Usually, they’re called Gen Z, but they’ve also been dubbed the Selfie Generation, or iGen. We’re talking about the nearly 17 million young people, weaned on iPads and cell phones, who were born between 1995 and 2010. Since this group has been shaped by growing up during the Pandemic, perhaps Generation P would be a more fitting moniker. A major turn in Gen Z’s pandemic journey came in May, when they became the latest group eligible for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine. Some health providers and cites raced to vaccinate 12-to-15-year-olds on the morning of Tuesday, May 11, one day after FDA green lit the Pfizer vaccine for that age group. As of May 23, more than 2 million 12-15 year-olds had received at least their first dose.
Although the CDC now recommends that everyone 12 and older get vaccinated, things are not that simple in this politically polarized time. To the consternation of health officials, many Americans view the teen/tween vaccinations warily. According to a May survey by the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor, a project tracking public attitudes about vaccinations, only 30% of parents of children from 12-15 say they will get their child vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is available. A quarter say they will wait a while to see how the vaccine is working; 18% plan to get their child vaccinated if their school requires it, and nearly 25% say they will definitely not get their child vaccinated. Since parental consent for vaccines is required in almost every state, millions of mothers and fathers are now grappling with this decision.
Karen and Rajeev Karki in Farmington Hills, Michigan are one such couple. They live in a state that has been riven by political fights over Covid issues such as mask mandates and shelter-in-place orders. Despite seeing anti-vaxxers frequently on the local news, the two Karki children, Arya, 15, and her brother Alex, 12, were immediately gung-ho about getting vaccinated. “I wondered, when are we going to be able to get it?” When are we going to be able to get it? says Arya. “I was so excited when they finally announced it.”
When people cite challenges posed by the pandemic, they generally mean adult concerns like the travails of working remotely But the younger set has its own Covid-related frustrations too. Alex just finished sixth grade, his first year in middle school, but he has never physically been inside of his new school building because his classes were remote. Alex’s assessment of life during the pandemic? It’s not the most fun thing,” he says. “In most ways, I’m separated from my friends. I don’t get to see a lot of people in person because I do virtual school.”
Likewise, Arya just finished ninth grade, her first year of high school, but has never been in a classroom there. She initially had a very hard time adjusting to the new Covid reality. ‘I was freaking out a lot,” she recalls. ‘I was very scared and I had a couple panic attacks. We weren’t really sure of anything about the disease. When we got our grocery orders, we were disinfecting all the surfaces of cereal boxes and stuff like that. I didn’t know how it spread, and I was worried about it all the time.”
Arya and Alex were optimistic that their parents would favor them getting vaccinated. After all, Karen and Rajeev were early vaccine adopters themselves. Rajeev, a product manager for an auto-financing company, says that he and his wife had no hesitation about taking the vaccine. “We were just waiting for Michigan to make it available for our age group,” he says. ‘So when it was announced, we stayed up late and tried to get appointments. We were there the next day.” His wife, Karen, a photographer, elaborates: “Obviously, we looked into the vaccine as it was developing. We were keeping an eye on it. But by the time it was available, we were feeling confident and ready to go.” The couple were vaccinated in March and April,
But vaccinating your children is another kettle of fish. Karen and Rajeev took it slower. Says Karen, “I definitely wanted to check into things. For yourself, you feel, ‘okay, I’ll be fine’. But then when you’re looking at getting it for your kids, you’re like,’ I’m not talking about just myself anymore.’ It puts it at another level.”
The all-too-real dangers of Covid-19 loomed large in their decision-making. Karen’s grandmother passed away in September from Covid. “She had been so careful,” says Karen. “But she had a caretaker who came to the house a couple of times a week. He got a very mild case and my grandma didn’t make it.” The couple also had another friend who died a few months later of Covid in January. “He was just 50 years old,” says Karen. “He and his wife both got Covid. She had a mild case and he passed away within a week.” Rajeev, who is originally from Nepal, also knew of numerous people there who had died of the virus.
Those indisputable dangers tipped the scale in favor of letting Arya and Alex get vaccinated. Says Rajeev, “I believe in the process and science. I probably wouldn't have been the first one to sign up for the vaccine, but I'm happy about the people that were the first ones to volunteer around the world. I'm sure there were tens of millions already vaccinated. So I felt safe and then I knew that my kids would be safe too.” Adds Karen, “When we looked into everything, we really felt that given the risk level of getting COVID, and not knowing whether or not you’re going to be someone who will have a mild case or someone who had an extreme case, it was worth it. By the time the vaccines opened up to 12- to 15-year-olds, we had seen the 16 and up population roll out, and it seemed to be going pretty well. People were not having early adverse effects. And so we felt pretty good.”
So in May, the family made the trek over to a Walgreens pharmacy, where Arya and Alex were vaccinated. Recalls Arya, “We waited maybe five or ten minutes. And then we went into a small room. They gave me the vaccine and we waited there for 15 minutes afterward, because they had to do that to make sure we didn’t have a bad reaction. We didn’t, and we headed home.” Mission accomplished!
Like their parents, Arya and Alex only had mild side effects from the vaccines. “It didn’t hurt very much,” says Arya. It was just like a really, really minor aching feeling for a day or so. After the second shot, I had a little bit of chills for an hour. But that was really it. I didn’t have anything beyond that.” Alex had a slight fever. “I took a nap,” he says. “My left arm was a bit sore for the next day as well. I thought it was normal, because a lot of people have side effects.”
But things don’t go that smoothly for some Gen Z vaccine wannabes. Parental feelings about vaccinating their offspring generally align with their sentiments about getting a vaccine themselves. In June, the New Yorker ran a desperate interview with an anonymous 16-year-old boy from Arizona whose unvaccinated, unmasked parents refuse to give him permission to get a vaccine. “I’m starting to get left out of life because of not being vaccinated,” he told the magazine. The teen explained that his parents have “been going down the kind off Trump and far-right rabbit hole as long as I can remember.” His parents have now told him, “You’re never getting the vaccine.”
The Karkis watched a similar drama play out closer to home. One of Arya’s closest friends was barred by her politically conservative father from getting a vaccine. Says Karen, “She really wanted to get the vaccine, but her dad was really holding off. She really wanted to take that step and felt that was what needed to happen for her to be able to go back into school settings. Her mom was supporting the idea of their daughter getting it, but the dad thought there might be underlying--I don’t want to say conspiracy theories—but kind of conspiracy theories, on why vaccines are being promoted. They had to come to a family agreement and get everybody on board. She has since been vaccinated.”
In April, 2020, armed protestors memorably swarmed Michigan’s state capitol in Lansing, objecting to Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s shut-down orders. Neither Karen nor Rajeev, who describe themselves as Democrats, have any patience for the many vocal Covid deniers or anti-vaxxers in their state. Says Karen, “It’s just shocking. People have seen people getting sick all around them. How can they go on denying that this is something that’s really happening, or something we need to as a community take some kind of action toward? Everybody knows this is not the way we want to ideally live our lives. But how can you just pretend it’s not happening?”
After watching the partisan theatrics in his state, Rajeev is amazed by what has gone on. ‘I don't know why it became such a big political thing,” he says. “Vaccines have been around forever. Polio has been pretty much eradicated and there are vaccines for all kinds of other things. So I feel that if Covid had appeared during a different political era. and if there wasn't so much news about being against even masking up, maybe people would have reacted differently.” He is exasperated by the anti-vaccine talk he has heard from some of his own acquaintances: “I'm from Nepal, right? If these people were more religious and maybe not educated, and saying, ‘No, I'm not going to get vaccinated’--but friends and coworkers who are well-educated--I thought would at least believe in the science.”
Now that their family is fully vaccinated, the Karkis find their lives are opening up in pleasing, albeit careful, ways. Explains Rajeev, “My daughter was pretty panicked about just going outside and being in a group, even if we were careful wearing masks and we were outside We felt pretty safe, but my daughter didn't. So we didn't do a lot of activities. But now, being vaccinated, she's not as worried and that has allowed us to do even like hiking and going to the beach. We're still being careful, but at least being outdoors, we're a lot more comfortable. We’re still trying to keep some distance. If there were a pool party with a hundred people there, we probably would decide, ‘Okay, we're going to still enjoy it from the side.’ We probably wouldn't do that. But we're pretty close to Lake Michigan, where there are big beaches. If people have their spots and they're 10-20 feet away, I think that we wouldn't think twice about participating in something like that.”
With most schools opening in-person in the fall, life promises to edge closer to normal for Gen Z kids like Arya and Alex. Growing up during such a profound crisis will inevitably shape the personalities of many of these kids, who have been forced to grow up faster than usual. That has certainly happened to Arya and Alex, whose parents marvel at how much their kids have matured during this unusual passage.
With a pandemic-born precociousness, Arya sums up the vaccine situation nicely:
“I think it’s really important for people to get vaccinated. I think it’s a thing to do for the community, and I think everyone should do it. It’s technically their choice, but I think it’s a choice that is about other people. And I think that not getting it is selfish. If it were a minor disease like a cold or something it would be a little different. But this is life threatening. Essentially when you don’t get the vaccine by choice, it’s kind of like saying your pride is more important than someone else’s life. I also think that it’s wasteful, because there are so many people in other countries who don’t have the same access to the vaccine. My dad’s side of the family is from Nepal, and they have not, a lot of them have not been able to get it. And here in the United States, we, take a lot of things for granted. Here we can just make an appointment and go get the vaccine the same day. And here we are, a lot of people are turning up their noses at the fact that there are other people who are just desperate to get the vaccine. So, I think it’s a privilege that we have. And it’s, when you don’t get it, you’re squandering that opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Pfizer and Moderna are currently conducting vaccine trials on children from 6 months to 11 years old. Move over, middle-schoolers. The next political brawl may take place in the nursery.