A shot at normal

SaiGayathri “Sai” Kurup, 16, has been watching her dad, an internal medicine doctor at Sinai Hospital, treat COVID patients throughout the past year. So for her to finally secure a vaccine, she feels relief not only for herself but also for the rest of the world as we take a step to return to normalcy. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

BALTIMORE — SaiGayathri Kurup was sitting in her room last week when the email popped into her inbox.

The 16-year-old ran down the stairs to tell her parents the good news: She was getting the COVID-19 vaccine. They could finally start tentatively planning their visit to India this summer.

After watching her father, an internal medicine doctor at Sinai Hospital, working on the front lines treating coronavirus patients for more than a year, Kurup said the appointment was a welcomed relief.

“We’re kind of alone here in America so it will be nice to finally get to talk with our families,” the Cockeysville teen said. “To know after everything that happened this year, we finally reached the point where all that development and research turned into something that can actually help us.”

Kurup is one of more than 71,000 teenagers as of Thursday who have secured a shot since Maryland opened eligibility to all adults 16 and older at mass vaccination sites April 6 and then other providers April 12. About 21,000 teens are considered fully vaccinated with either a second dose or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The group was among the last in Maryland to become eligible, as the state’s vaccination campaign first focused on more vulnerable populations like the elderly and immunocompromised. It also came with caveats: 16- and 17-year-olds can only receive the Pfizer vaccine and a parent must be present with them for the shot at mass vaccination sites.

With hospitalizations plummeting among older adults, encouraging young people to be vaccinated quickly will be key to achieving herd immunity, experts say. According to a survey released Thursday from Morning Consult, 48% of 18-34 year olds are either uncertain about getting the vaccine or don’t plan on getting it — the highest of any age group polled.

Although younger people are less likely to contract severe COVID, Dr. James Campbell, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said it’s still imperative for teens to get vaccinated to be protected from the virus for the same reasons adults should get the shot.

“Adults are starting to now finally feel like they can now see friends or family safely for the first time in over a year,” said Campbell, the principal investigator of a trial of the Moderna vaccine on children under 11 years old. “Kids and children have been left out of that equation for a while and now we are finally able to afford some of them the same protections as adults.”

Currently only the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is authorized for those as young as 16. On April 9, the companies asked the FDA to expand its use to 12- to 15-year-olds.

The Maryland Department of Health said a “standard consent form” is used at mass vaccination sites and that a parent or guardian must be present with the child to receive to vaccine. The department said the guardian is also responsible for verifying the teen is getting the right shot.

Both of Seth Krosin’s parents and his 17-year-old sister have been fully vaccinated, but the St. Paul’s School for Boys sophomore is still two months shy of his 16th birthday, leaving him the odd one out.

“It’s definitely frustrating because a bunch of my friends from school are getting it,” Krosin said. “I just want that peace of mind that I’m safe. I understand rules are rules but I’m just so close.”

The Pikesville teen said he’s hoping Pfizer receives its expanded approval so he can feel safer attending school in person and so his family can plan a vacation knowing that everyone has been safeguarded from the virus.

Kurup, a sophomore at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said never thought about foregoing the vaccine. With her dad being a doctor, she said her family has a lot of trust in science and the rigorous process a vaccine has to go through to gain federal approval.

Teachers in her science classes made it a point to talk about the vaccine’s development and worked to dispel rumors. During one class, Kurup added, students were even able to talk with researchers and ask questions about the vaccine.

Across the Baltimore region, many public and private schools are encouraging their teachers and students to be vaccinated but have not set up clinics to make the process faster.

Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties said they have no current plans to vaccinate students.

“I would not rule it out as we want everyone eligible to get vaccinated, but we have not had any substantive discussions with the Department of Health about it,” said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County public schools.

The same is true for many private schools, including The Park School, Roland Park Country, Mercy High School and Loyola Blakefield said they are not offering campus vaccinations.

“We are encouraging our students who are 16 years and older to get vaccinated,” said Abbey Pulcinella, a spokeswoman for the Roland Park Country School, “but aren’t planning to offer vaccines on campus at this time.”

The Gilman School, however, is planning a clinic for students and “working through the details,” spokeswoman Brooke Blumberg said. Calvert Hall College High School also organized a vaccine clinic for students.

Kaycee Voorhees said he was able to secure a vaccine through Baltimore Safe Haven, a local LGBTQ rights group, where he is a youth ambassador.

After receiving a dose of Moderna, Voorhees, who just turned 19, said he finally felt comfortable finding a full-time job.

“When I have to come home from work in the public, I have to worry about bringing home COVID to my mom as we share an apartment,” the Charles Village resident said. “But now, I feel like this is one step better toward normalization of society.”

Kurup said getting her shot at the Maryland state fairgrounds over the weekend was fairly simple — the only inconvenience being a backed up line of cars to get into the venue. Between waiting in line and getting the shot, she said the whole process took about an hour and a half.

The side effects were minimal, the aspiring doctor said. Just a sore arm for a few days and she was more tired than usual.

“I just feel so hopeful,” Kurup said. “I’m hopeful about what will happen within the next year. We’re finally getting toward the better part of it and so many people are getting vaccinated, I just hope things go back to normal.”

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