At 10:10 a.m., 20 minutes before he was scheduled to get his first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, Alice Roberts and her son, Gavin, arrived at a pharmacy miles from their Glen Ridge, N.J., home. The preteen was so set on getting the vaccine on his birthday that his mom said he asked to be driven to a pharmacy farther from their home rather than waiting for one closer by to open on Monday.
Sporting the cross necklace that his father wore while hospitalized with the virus last year, Gavin sat still as the nurse injected his left arm. Alice Roberts, who stood nearby snapping pictures, said she exhaled in relief.
An elementary school social studies teacher who first wrote about her son’s experience in a column published by NJ.com, Alice Roberts said she hopes Gavin’s story can serve as an example for the millions of Americans who have yet to schedule their shots.
“If a child can see with clarity the necessity and importance of something and can see that health is more important than anything material, then I don’t understand what’s holding people up,” Alice Roberts, 46, told The Washington Post.
“You have got to do it,” she added.
Gavin’s story highlights what a generation of children — some still too young to get vaccinated against the virus — have lost during the pandemic. More than 1.5 million children worldwide have faced the death of one or both parents, a custodial grandparent or other relative due to covid-19, The Post reported in July.
And millions of children remain unvaccinated since the coronavirus shots are only approved for those aged 12 and up. Officials announced this week that a lower dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is considered safe for children as young as 5 years old, potentially paving the way for the two-shot immunization regimen to become available to younger school-aged kids this fall.
On the morning of April 21, 2020, Alice Roberts said she and her three children were awakened by a loud thump. Her husband, Glen Ridge police officer Charles “Rob” Roberts, who had begun exhibiting symptoms earlier that month, had collapsed on the floor while on the phone with the local health department, Alice Roberts told The Post. Her husband had been tested for the coronavirus earlier, but she said the results were mislabeled. His heart stopped before the new results were available, his wife said.
Alice Roberts rushed the children and pets to the basement so they didn’t have to see him unconscious. His colleagues revived him that morning, she told The Post, but he died weeks later on May 11, 2020, when the family agreed to disconnect him from life support after he suffered severe oxygen loss to the brain. He was 45.
When Alice Roberts told Gavin, who was 10 at the time, the boy shared: ” I just wish I would have known him longer,” she recounted.
Over the next year and a half, Alice Roberts said the family was consumed by grief. She took an unpaid leave of absence from her teaching job to care for the children and assist them with remote learning. As soon as they were eligible, Alice Roberts and her two daughters — who are over 12 — got their coronavirus vaccines.
But she didn’t allow Gavin, the only one in the household ineligible for immunization, to go to his friends’ houses for sleepovers or to travel for hockey.
“It’s been lonely,” Alice Roberts added.
Gavin has watched his team’s hockey tournaments on Instagram and hasn’t protested missing the events because he has worried about contracting the coronavirus.
“You expect a fight and it just didn’t come,” Alice Roberts said. She added in her NJ.com column that in her son’s “wise-beyond-his-11-years manner,” he agreed that the “potential risks did not outweigh the benefits.”
Things began to look up when the Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines for children 12 to 15 in May. Now, her son just had to wait until he turned 12, Roberts said. But when they realized his birthday fell on a Sunday, they had to hunt for vaccine appointments available on the weekend.
“I didn’t want to wait until Monday [when the closest pharmacy reopened]," Gavin told The Post during the phone call with his mother. “I wanted to get out there.”
By 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, Gavin was sporting a Band-Aid on his left arm while holding his vaccine card. When asked how he felt moments after receiving it, he replied: “Relieved.”
The family later celebrated his 12th birthday — and his vaccination — with an outdoor meal. He dined on chicken wings, Alice Roberts said, and talked excitedly about visiting his grandparents without the constant worry of infecting them.
Alice Roberts surprised her son with a bicycle, baseball bat and bag of candy.
Safety, Gavin said, was still the greatest gift.