Enrolling My Son in the COVID-19 Clinical Trials: Para Nuestra Familia y Comunidad
By: Dr. Ruth M. Lopez
Just like many other families, since March 2020, my husband and I have been juggling keeping our two kids safe, making sure they are still receiving a quality education, and tending to our own personal and professional needs. But even beyond my own fears of this pandemic, I am often concerned about the most vulnerable communities. I worry about my immunocompromised mother, essential workers, elders, and the children in my majority Latinx neighborhood to name a few. Throughout the pandemic I have recalled all too well what it was like to navigate the healthcare system as an uninsured person and I also think about my relatives in El Salvador and Mexico who waited long to have access to the COVID-19 vaccine or who have not yet been able to access it. Given this, I have not taken for granted my privileges to easily get access to COVID-19 tests and the vaccine.
After the COVID-19 vaccine received emergency authorization for adults in the United States, I saw on my social media pages and in the news that individuals were sharing that they were part of the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials. Up to that point my children were still attending school virtually given that my 9 year old son had a history of asthma and we were worried about him having adverse symptoms if he were to get sick. This made me curious about the vaccine trials for children, and after speaking to our pediatrician and allergist, they confirmed it would be a good idea to complete the interest forms. I was worried of course, given that all research carries a risk, but seeing the high rates of COVID-19 in my community and across the country assured me that signing my children up for the trials was a good idea.
Ultimately, the decision came down to an ethic of care my familia and I believe in–yes, my children would have greater protection, but beyond them, their participation could help ensure all children will have access to the vaccine sooner rather than later.
My son Marcelo is only 9 years old, but already I see in him an altruistic and communal spirit–I see him and the other children who have participated in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials as brave leaders. In late Spring 2021 we received an invitation for him to participate in the KidCOVE Moderna vaccine study through the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. One thing I appreciated from the very beginning was that they include paperwork for children to read and be aware of the decision they are making to participate. This is a year-long study and my son is aware he can stop his involvement at any moment. We were in the phase of the study where participants received two lower doses of the vaccine. At the age of 8 in June 2021, my son was fully vaccinated and his reactions were mild. During the summer, we started hearing more about the high rates of the Delta variant of COVID-19, and that’s when I decided to start sharing publicly about our experience.
This fall when children returned to school, I counted my family fortunate that we are in a school district (Houston Independent School District) that has a mask mandate and is providing a vaccine incentive to staff. However the Texas governor and other state leaders have unfortunately politicized the pandemic and pushed a COVID-19 response that puts our most vulnerable communities at risk. Child cases of COVID-19 have been at higher rates than any other time in the pandemic and Texas leads in the number of pediatric deaths due to COVID-19. If they are exposed to COVID-19, some districts are not providing a virtual option while children quarantine. Our district is providing virtual schooling for immunocompromised children who cannot get vaccinated yet and those who may be close contacts to a child with COVID-19. Having my son vaccinated and with the measures our district implemented, I felt more at ease sending him to school. But I remain nervous about our 5 year old daughter who is not yet vaccinated.
Being vaccinated not only gives our children greater protection from COVID-19, but it also gives them a chance to learn in safer environments. During the pandemic, I’ve often thought about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with the base of this model being physiological and safety needs. I have heard the term “learning loss” mentioned almost daily in discussions about the education of children of color. Yes, the education of our children has been impacted severely, but this perspective tends to focus only on their performance on standardized tests. These metrics tell us nothing about the impact of COVID-19 on their personal lives. How many of our students lost family members to the virus? How many of our students became ill themselves? Lived in households where someone lost their job? Experienced homelessness? When I think about children getting access to the vaccine, I see that we can start creating school environments where they feel safer to get back to learning and become self-actualized.
I am also aware that there are those who are pushing misinformation about the vaccine, and that some want to leave it to “personal responsibility” to combat COVID-19. But this pandemic is a global public health crisis and requires a systemic response. I hope that in the coming months, leaders at all levels–federal, state, local–invest time and funding in making sure all children have access to the vaccine. Accessibility could look like ensuring that vaccines are available in all communities, for extended hours, and that information about them is provided in multiple languages and modalities. In Harris County, where Houston is located, vaccine incentives of $100 have led to more people getting vaccinated. We need leaders who will continue to push for better COVID-19 responses so that we can get to a place where our communities can begin to heal from this difficult chapter in history.
The Pfizer pediatric vaccine for ages 5-11 could receive emergency authorization from the FDA before the end of 2021 and their data look very promising. I hope that by sharing our experience, other families can feel empowered to vaccinate their own children when it becomes available.
Mijo, one day you may read this. And I want you to know I’m so proud of you and that you are making history. You helped your community during a challenging time.
Dr. Ruth M. López is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Houston. Her research examines policies and practices affecting students of color along the P-20 pipeline—specifically focusing on Latinx and immigrant students.