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Faced with anti-vaccination parents, teens are helping one another get Covid shots

The dilemma for some teenagers is "I know vaccines are lifesaving, but I don't want to become homeless" by defying their parents' wishes.
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The Gen Zer from Ohio who made a splash two years ago for defying his mother to get his childhood immunizations has a message for teenagers seeking Covid-19 vaccinations and getting pushback from their parents — get one if you can.

Ethan Lindenberger, 20, got his first dose three weeks ago and said doing so “could save someone’s life.”

“Teens faced with this have to weigh things like ‘I know vaccines are lifesaving, but I don’t want to become homeless,’” he said. “So I tell them if you can’t have that loving conversation with your parents and you’re of age, weigh those consequences seriously.

“Don’t get yourself kicked out or seriously in trouble ... but, if you’re able to have that conversation, please get your shots as soon as possible,” he said.

Summer Johnson McGee, dean of the University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences, said she wholeheartedly approves that message.

"Ethan’s advice is spot on for encouraging teens to undertake education and straight talk with parents about their desire to be vaccinated," she said. "Teenagers who do not share their parents' views on vaccination are in a tough spot, but should advocate for their own decision-making to be vaccinated if they wish."

Lindenberger gained national attention in 2019 when he posted on Reddit that he had never been vaccinated because his mother believed that vaccines are dangerous. He wound up getting his shots over his mother’s objections and later testified before a Senate committee about how misinformation that appears on Facebook, Twitter and other social media fuels the anti-vaccination movement.

Doing so brought him both widespread praise from some but scorn and even death threats from the movement's supporters.

Lindenberger spoke out as a nationwide push is on to get as many teenagers as possible vaccinated now that everyone over 12 is eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations.

There are 25 million children ages 12 to 17, according to Census Bureau data compiled and analyzed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And while the rates of death or serious disease from Covid-19 are lower in children than in adults, public health experts have said getting this population vaccinated is a critically important step toward completely reopening the country’s schools and the economy.

Still, a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation's Vaccine Monitor found that nearly a quarter of parents surveyed would not allow their teenagers to be vaccinated and 18 percent said they would do it only if the schools mandated it.

Parental consent is something children have to contend with across the country, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach as states have differing rules.

Nearly all states require consent from a parent or guardian to administer a Covid-19 vaccine shot to children ages 12 to 15, the group the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved for shots this month, according to a recent CNN analysis.

There are exceptions in just five states: In North Carolina, teenagers can receive vaccinations without parental consent; in Tennessee and Alabama, teenagers 14 and older don’t need consent; in Oregon, the age is set at 15; and in Iowa, it’s up to the health care provider to decide.

In all other states, those 12 to 15 are required to have parental approval before receiving the Covid-19 vaccination. For teenagers 16 to 18, though, it’s all over the map.

In California, for example, minors can’t get the Covid-19 vaccination without their parents’ consent, according to the vaccine information website VaxTeen. But a 16-year-old in South Carolina can do so without parental permission.

Just how many teenagers are in this predicament remains unclear. But Kelly Danielpour, who runs VaxTeen, said that among the dozen or so queries she gets every day, many are from teenagers contending with parents opposed to them getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Kelly Danielpour
Kelly Danielpour.Courtesy Kelly Danielpour

“I started this site pre-pandemic,” said Danielpour, 18, who lives in Los Angeles. She said she was inspired by teenagers on Reddit who wanted to be vaccinated, in spite of their parents' anti-vaccinated beliefs, to start an organization intended for her peers specifically. One of her primary objectives was fighting misinformation about the HPV vaccine.

“But since the pandemic, getting Covid-19 vaccinations has become the most prevalent issue,” said Danielpour, who has already received the Moderna shots. “I am lucky because my parents are pro-vaccine, but there seems to be a lot of teens whose parents are opposed to letting them get vaccinated.”

The first step, she said, is arming the teenagers with information and resources they can use when talking to their parents — and in some cases that has worked. She said she recently heard from a teenager whose parents relented after she made an argument to get vaccinated against Covid-19 using VaxTeen information.

But if that doesn’t sway parents’ opinions, she said, she tries to get the teenagers information about “minor self-consent.”

“It’s an issue of access, as well as consent,” Danielpour said.

Arin Parsa, 13, the founder of the Teens for Vaccines advocacy group, said in an email that the group has been "in the trenches helping many teens who face vaccine-hesitancy as well as extreme anti-vax views in their families."

"People often don't realize that lack of teen rights for immunizations is not only a public health issue but a severe mental health issue for many," Arin wrote.

Lindenberger knows firsthand how complicated family dynamics can be when children and parents fall on opposite sides of the vaccination divide. In fact, he finds himself at odds with his mother again about the Covid-19 vaccines.

“What I hear from her are a lot of the same arguments she uses to oppose other vaccines,” he said.

Lindenberger said his father, with whom he lives in Norwalk, Ohio, was supportive of his decision to get vaccinated. But he said he has heard from teenagers eager to get vaccinated who have been thwarted by their parents.

“I’ve had a few people reach out to me wanting to know how to deal with parental pushback against getting vaccinated,” Lindenberger said.

And he acknowledges that there is no easy answer.

“If your parent is opposed, clearly there are issues that need to be worked out. It’s not as simple as getting vaccinated and telling your parents to kick rocks,” Lindenberger said. “There is a complex family dynamic here.”

CORRECTION (May 23, 2021, 8:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misidentified a teen vaccination information website. It is VaxTeen, not TeenVax.