Sweet 16 vaccine: Teens hope getting vaccinated will 'give us our lives back'

Erin Donnelly
·4-min read
Bryan O'Keefe, 16, got his first COVID-19 vaccination last week. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom O'Keefe)
Bryan O'Keefe, 16, got his first COVID-19 vaccination last week. (Photo: Courtesy of Tom O'Keefe)

At 16, Bryan O'Keefe is "still working" on getting his driver's license. But with his state expanding eligibility to all Missourians age 16 and up, the St. Louis high school sophomore has already hit one significant rite of passage: being vaccinated against COVID-19

The teen, who received his first dose last week, tells Yahoo Life that since the pandemic hit, "it has felt like a year of my life just kind of zipped away.

"I didn't miss the major milestones as much as I did the small things," he adds. "Hanging with your friends during lunch, working on the school play... those things have been much more influential than homecoming or even learning how to drive."

Vaccination has brought excitement, and relief. Says O'Keefe, "I'm just glad the end is in sight."

He's just one of millions of American teens for whom coming of age now coincides with the option to be vaccinated against COVID-19. While Moderna and Johnson & Johnson's vaccines — the latter of which has been paused amid concerns about blood clot risks — are currently recommended for people who are at least 18 years of age, Pfizer has been authorized starting at age 16. By May 1, all 50 states will have opened eligibility to those 16 and up, and more than half have already done so. 

Thanks to that breakthrough, the North American milestone of turning "sweet 16" carries a new significance. With over-the-top birthday blowouts largely on pause, and the driver's license process complicated by COVID delays and restrictions, rolling up a sleeve is a newfound, and unexpected, privilege for teens who have missed out on many of the traditional markers of the high school experience.

A teen COVID-19 student ambassador gets his Pfizer vaccine in Michigan. (Photo: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)
A teen COVID-19 student ambassador gets his Pfizer vaccine in Michigan. (Photo: Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

In Hempstead, Texas, 10th-grader Jemma Kosanke is scheduled to get her first dose on Thursday, just one day after her 16th birthday; as with Bryan, her driver's license will come later. Though she's seen a lot of peers excitedly post about their own vaccination moments on social media, Jemma plans a more subdued post-shot celebration: a glass of her "favorite fizzy drink." 

The teen says the pandemic has "made school very stressful and less fun" — and while she's excited about turning 16, the day itself "doesn’t feel exceptionally special as it is just me and my family celebrating."

Twins Liliana and Jaylin of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. won't turn 16 until August, but dad Christopher Adams tells Yahoo Life that they're already more excited about getting their vaccinations than they are their licenses. 

"I'm in high school now and this is supposed to be the funnest time in our lives, or at least that's what everyone always tells us," Liliana says of her urgency. "I don't want to waste it anymore because of some virus that is not even in our control."

The ninth-graders hope being vaccinated will "give us our lives back" — though their parents have cautioned that this isn't necessarily a quick fix. 

"We are hoping to teach them that even though their vaccinations may be completed, things might not get back to pre-COVID levels for a while," Adams, founder of ModestFish, says. "There's still going to be a large percentage of society who will not have been vaccinated, and they need to take that into consideration before they go all out on wild adventures with their friends again."

That said, Adams says he applauds his daughters' enthusiasm, as well as their willingness to keep an open mind about the benefits of getting vaccinated. 

"There is a lot of propaganda right now about anti-vaxxing and all of that, so we are happy that they were able to just see things relative to what they actually are, using the facts, and make their own choice with this," he says. 

But other parents are much warier about letting their children be vaccinated. One dad told Yahoo Life that he wants his teen son to wait potentially a few years, expressing concern about the speediness with which the vaccine was released. As previously reported, a recent Yahoo and YouGov poll of 1,606 U.S. adults found that just 39 percent of parents planned to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19 once they’re eligible; 37 percent will not have their kids vaccinated, while 24 percent say they're unsure at this time. 

With Pfizer applying for the Food and Drug Administration's emergency use authorization for youths between 12 and 15, and Moderna testing on kids as young as 6 months, it stands to reason that vaccines may not be a "sweet 16" marker for long — and that it won't just be parents of teens making these decisions. 

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