By sheer numbers, it will make a big difference to have nearly 17 million more people eligible for vaccination. This is particularly important as vaccination has been slowing. Demand rather than supply is now the limiting factor in many parts of the country. The United States is at a tipping point where our level of immunity could be enough in the coming months to dramatically slow infection rates; having an additional 5 percent of Americans available to be inoculated will bring us there that much faster.
The timing of the decision also means that high school-age students can be inoculated before returning to school in the fall. While schools can keep transmission rates low with masks, distancing, testing, keeping students in pods, improved ventilation and other mitigation measures, vaccines provide a key layer of protection that can replace other, more onerous strategies. By the start of the next school year, I can imagine high schools looking much more like pre-pandemic times, especially if community transmission rates continue to fall, as expected. Youth sports, choir practice and extracurriculars that have been paused may all resume. And if nearly all teachers, staff and students are vaccinated, schools can potentially do away with masks and other restrictions.
Vaccinating this age group also paves the way for younger children to be vaccinated in the near future. The FDA has announced that its independent advisory committee will meet in June to discuss the potential of inoculating 2- to 11-year-olds. The studies for this younger age range are more complex: Unlike 12- to 15-year-olds, who receive the same dose of the vaccine as adults, younger children will be tested with different doses. As the mother of two children under 4, I will be much more relieved when all of our kids can benefit from these extraordinary vaccines.
For the time being, I’m hoping adolescents can show us what a return to normal can look like. Within a matter of weeks, vaccinated teens will be able to resume sleepovers, parties and indoor meals with their fully vaccinated friends. They can hang out in shopping malls and dine out in restaurants with little fear of contracting the coronavirus and passing it on to others. They can feel safe in summer camps, some of which could probably remove restrictions if everyone is vaccinated in time. Many families will move from “mixed” vaccination status to entirely vaccinated, allowing them to travel with ease and safely socialize with one another.
I hope teens will celebrate their newfound freedom openly and proudly. Just as health-care workers once posted their vaccine selfies, I hope young people will post pictures of themselves going to the movies, attending game nights and hanging out in one another’s homes. I hope they will make videos and tell everyone about all the things they haven’t been able to do during this last challenging year — and everything they are now able to resume because they and their peers are vaccinated.
Some might argue that such a display is premature. Isn’t there a chance that vaccinated people can still spread the coronavirus? This might have been a reasonable argument a few months ago, but now we have overwhelming evidence that being vaccinated substantially reduces the likelihood of getting covid-19 and infecting others. As I’ve argued previously, we need to stop applying restrictions to vaccinated people because they are not a public health threat. Instead, we should focus on the risk from those not yet vaccinated.
There are others who’d call this celebration insensitive and a prime example of American exceptionalism. How can we be flaunting parties and leisure travel when much of the world still cannot vaccinate their at-risk populations? I certainly agree that much more must be done to increase vaccine supply for the world. But the reality is that Americans have access to vaccines now, and the fact that many of them are hesitant to take them isn’t helping anyone. If young people illustrating the power of vaccines can move the needle and help convince people who are on the fence to get inoculated, it will bring us closer to ending the pandemic for everyone.
The coronavirus vaccines are a remarkable scientific achievement that we as a society have yet to truly celebrate. Teens can be the ambassadors of the crucial message that these vaccines are the key to resuming our pre-pandemic lives.