In October last year, I prepared my two-year-old son’s lunch and dropped him off at our neighborhood pre-school. As a working mother, I was forced to decide between sending him to school, where he could socialize and learn, or keeping him at home while working a full-time job as a professor at a large public university.
Backed into a corner, I chose to accept the risks of Covid-19, which were considered relatively low for young children. I reviewed the school’s safety protocols and consulted with my son’s pediatrician and neurologist, since he has epilepsy. On that particular afternoon, I was preparing to deliver a presentation via Zoom when his school called. My son was vomiting. Given his underlying condition, I picked him up and took him straight to the emergency room.
At the hospital, the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so we were admitted. Two days later, no closer to a diagnosis, they informed us he was in septic shock. My son’s organ systems began to fall like dominoes: liver, kidneys, heart, lungs. He had rashes, fevers, sky-high inflammatory markers. I’m not a physician, but the course of his illness seemed eerily similar to what I had read about MSI-C or multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children. And even though the virus had been circulating widely in our community at the time, my son tested negative for Covid-19 – twice.
The days in the pediatric intensive care unit crept by. The monitors beeped, the nurses changed shifts, the attendings did their rounds, and the babies wailed. My son was tied down, with his arms in restraints while he was intubated like many people seriously ill with Covid-19. He was on heavy doses of fentanyl and barbiturates. He had tubes and central lines snaking around every inch of his tiny body. The nights came and went. We were no closer to a diagnosis but in my gut, I believed it was MSI-C.
Then somehow, four weeks to the day after we walked into the hospital, we walked out together. No diagnosis. No explanation for why he had to be intubated two different times, why he was placed on a liver transplant list, why his heart failed, and why he came close to needing dialysis. Somehow the universe, and the prayers, and the expert medical care, and his warrior spirit, brought him through.
Then six months after this nightmare, his team of doctors admitted that in hindsight, the only plausible explanation for his near-death experience was MSI-C, likely caused by an asymptomatic or mild case of Covid-19.
Children under 12, including my son, cannot protect themselves from the coronavirus. They cannot get the Covid-19 vaccines, which are still undergoing clinical trials for young children. They cannot appropriately weigh the risks against the benefits. But as adults, we have the individual and collective responsibility to do whatever we can to mitigate their risks.
Until young children can be vaccinated, the best way to protect them – and ourselves – is to vaccinate as many eligible people as possible and maintain public health measures like masking, hand washing and social distancing. We have already asked young school children to take one for the team by staying home and learning remotely for over a year. Isn’t it time to uphold our end of the collective deal by literally rolling up our sleeves to get shots in arms?
Vaccination rates vary around the country and in most states, Black and Hispanic people have received smaller shares of vaccinations compared with their shares of Covid-19 cases, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report last week. I have written about the concerns that Black and Indigenous people, along with other people of color (BIPOC) have over vaccines, and how they must be taken seriously. This mistrust is not unfounded; both my academic training and personal experience tell me that BIPOC do not fare well in predominately White health care institutions. Racial health inequities are also par for the course.
Given the reality of Covid-19 and the growing threat of the Delta variant, BIPOC should perhaps weigh the health benefits of vaccines – and see it as a way to stay out of the very hospitals and doctors’ offices that so often fail them. Getting vaccinated against preventable diseases is one way to ensure that all people, especially BIPOC, avoid health care encounters in which implicit and explicit bias lead to worse health outcomes.
It doesn’t help that many Republicans have been stoking vaccine skepticism and outright hostility. The Delta variant is already spreading rapidly across the country. Many who choose to forgo the shot may claim they are making a personal decision. But the continued spread of Covid-19 affects us all. And the truth is, the virus doesn’t care about so-called individual liberties. It simply infects whatever host it can find, Republican or Democrat, young or old, disabled, immuno-compromised, and anti-vaxxers alike.
If anything, remaining unvaccinated by choice – and not because of lack of access or contraindicated health conditions – sounds more to me like shirking an individual responsibility than exercising an individual right.
I came very close to losing my son last year. And more than 600,000 Americans and 4 million people worldwide have lost their lives to this pandemic. Enough is enough. Roll up your sleeve. Get the shot. Do your part to protect yourself and each other.