The Mother Lode: Kids are now the tipping point in the COVID-19 vaccine debate

Photo of Claire Tisne Haft
Louie Haft, the 13-year-old son of Claire Tisne Haft, the Mother Lode columnist, makes his feelings clear about the COVID-19 vaccine with this sign on his door.

Louie Haft, the 13-year-old son of Claire Tisne Haft, the Mother Lode columnist, makes his feelings clear about the COVID-19 vaccine with this sign on his door.

Contributed / Claire Tisne Haft /

“QAnon, Deep State, Antifa, anti-vaxxers — they’re all in this together,” a friend hollered at an outdoor dinner party recently among some very smart people who are well known in Greenwich.

“Yeah,” a vaccine-hesitant friend told me later. “We all gather, chant songs and put war paint on each other; it’s like a thing.”

But now that kids have been thrown into the COVID-19 vaccine equation, things are heating up.

“Don’t write about the vaccine,” another friend told me. “You’ll end up in stocks in Old Greenwich, somewhere in Binney Park.”

Let me be clear: my goal, as always, is to share my experiences — not to advocate. And although I try to find the humor in things, this issue is no laughing matter. Vaccine legislation, as well as resistance or compliance, will define our country in the coming years, and children seem to be a tipping point.

“Well, it’s much more complicated than the decision to vaccinate yourself,” another mom told me. “For one, chances are low your child can get seriously ill with COVID-19 - so why risk it?”

But kids have become sick, some with breathing issues weeks after diagnosis, and anosmia (loss of taste and smell) so bad kids “simply can’t keep weight on,” as my pediatrician put it.

“And don’t forget the mighty herd immunity!” a Greek chorus sings from on high.

But now scientists are saying herd immunity is quixotic at best; even Dr. Anthony Fauci is steering clear of the term. Turns out this deus ex machina is based on calculations that change with contagion rates.

“I’m not getting that vaccine, Mom,” my 13-year-old Louie informed me last week. “And I know ALL about it, so don’t even.”

Knowing that Louie’s declaration meant I was up against TikTok’s wisdom on the issue, as delivered by some kid who makes a living by dropping TVs on friends, I decided I better do my homework. And down the rabbit hole I went.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15. This does not mean your child is required to get the “jab.”

But to be clear: just as you are not required by law to get vaccinated for COVID-19, your child isn’t, either — at least, not yet. However, some schools are setting up vaccination sites on campus and offering busing to vaccination sites free of charge, with no insurance ID required.

Many colleges, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, California State, all of New York’s SUNY and CUNY schools and many more, will require COVID-19 vaccines for students who wish to attend in-person classes this fall. Then there’s the camps, teams, day cares and places of employment. Cooperstown Dreams Park Baseball Camp was requiring players 12 and up to be vaccinated before the vaccine was authorized for this age bracket. Wait, what?

Will the federal government require younger kids to get the COVID vaccine eventually? It doesn’t work that way. Normally, the FDA clears the safety of a vaccine, then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts out guidelines and finally each of the 50 states establish which shots are mandatory for school entry. Problem is, the FDA has cleared the COVID vaccine only for “emergency use authorization,” so the rules and protocol are murky.

To make matters worse, the state of Connecticut has been making a whole lot of people nervous on the issue of mandatory vaccinations. House Bill 6423 was passed in the state Senate by a vote of 22-14 after over seven hours of debate, preceded by a showdown in the House that lasted 16 hours, proceeded by a public hearing on Zoom that lasted 24 hours. This new law, signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on April 28, takes away religious exemptions to vaccination requirements — leaving only medical exemptions legal in our Constitution State.

This may not seem like a big deal; I didn’t even know what a religious exemption meant until two weeks ago; I never hesitate to vaccinate my kids or myself. But with the COVID-19 immunization campaign under “emergency use authorization” for everyone 12 and up, things are getting weird.

I’m going to back it up and break it down: exemptions for state-mandated vaccines come in three flavors: religious, philosophical and medical. All 50 states offer medical exemptions, allowing physicians to waive vaccination requirements for those with medical contraindications such as allergies or cancer treatment.

But here’s the catch: most other precautions do not qualify, and few pediatricians will grant medical exemptions. Those twho do consistently are put up for review in other states and often penalized by insurance companies, so many practices simply won’t allow non-vaccinated patients.

The upshot? No one does it. Nationally, 0.3 percent of kindergartners entering school in 2019-20 were given medical exemptions, according to the CDC. Some of the exemptions are temporary — for example, most cancer patients are required to catch up on state-mandated vaccinations upon recovery/remission.

There are “philosophical exemptions,” a term I suggest you keep under wraps from any teenager residing in your house. As of now, 15 states offer philosophical exemptions — and Connecticut is not among them.

And lastly, there are religious exemptions, which are granted in every state except California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia and, as of recently, Connecticut.

According to the Department of Public Health, the national average during 2019-20 for non-medical exemptions was 2.2 percent. Bottom line: state-mandated vaccine exemptions are rare in America.

And now in Connecticut, if you didn’t file a religious exemption by April 28, you no longer have the right to say no to school-required vaccinations, unless you have a serious medical condition.

Hang on — what? I’m suddenly left wondering what I was doing on April 28, and why I didn’t know any of this — which is weird because I am neither religious in my health practice nor am I an anti-vaxxer. Was I watching “Outlander” into the wee hours, eating my kid’s Easter candy, while they slept innocently upstairs, their upper arms exposed to the whims of the state of Connecticut?

But that’s ridiculous! Of course I am vaccinating my kids, if my pediatrician tells me to do so. I guess I just wished someone had warned me that my last chance to disagree was about to be yanked away. And that’s even though I don’t disagree or even knew I had the right to disagree.

Let me be clear: COVID vaccinations are not required under state law, but all these exemption issues are creating quite a stir as vaccinations ramp up in different age brackets. There are so many variables here, and things seem to be changing daily. Try hearing out your vaccine-hesitant friends, at the same time you find yourself scrambling to turn off a New York Times podcast in which people are voicing their oddly well-articulated belief that Bill Gates is microchipping the masses via vaccine, while your teenager hollers, “I KNEW IT” from the back seat.

And here’s the thing: we’re just getting started. It’s like another leg in this never-ending marathon. Can someone tell me what’s next please, just so I’m ready? Someone from the Herd maybe?

You know what? I miss the herd. It was so hopeful in its immunity striving: positive, affirming and offering a goal post of sorts, a finish line.

I wish Herd Immunity would return — things were so much simpler back then.

Claire Tisne Haft is a former publishing and film executive, raising her family in Greenwich while working on a freelance basis on books and films. She can be reached through her website at clairetisnehaft.com.