A medical volunteer places a cartoon band-aid on Presley Oliphant, a first grader at Longfellow Elementary School, after she received the first dose of the two-shot Pfizer Covid vaccine Nov. 11 at a vaccine clinic held at Longfellow. | Sara Janz

Since the spring, Rebecca Zobel, a nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, has joined the Oak Park public health department’s medical reserve corps and  helped administer the COVID-19 vaccine to adults at various clinics held across the community. But on Nov. 9, Zobel got the chance to vaccinate one of Oak Park’s youngest residents: Zobel’s 11-year-old daughter, Samantha.

That Tuesday night, inside the Lincoln Elementary School cafeteria, Zobel knelt beside Samantha who sat with her left tie-dye T-shirt sleeve rolled up, anticipating the needle’s sharp prick. Family friend and vaccine clinic volunteer, Amanda Osta, was on standby, comforting Samantha, holding her hands. Zobel’s husband was there, too, capturing the moment where Samantha’s grimace turned into a big toothy smile.

As a mother and a frontline worker, Zobel said she was overcome with emotion when she gave Samantha her first shot of the two-dose Pfizer Covid vaccine. A Lincoln fifth grader who turned 11 last month, Samantha was the last in her immediate family to become eligible for the vaccine. Samantha’s older brother completed his shots months ago when the vaccine was made available to individuals ages 12 and older.

Rebecca Zobel (right), a nurse and Oak Park health department medical volunteer, administers the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for her 11-year-old daughter, Samantha. | Sara Janz

“She knew it was coming,” Zobel said of Samantha. “My husband and I both had them, and her 13-year-old brother had his earlier this year.”

Over the last couple of weeks, the federal government authorized an emergency use for Pfizer’s Covid vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. That age group makes up 39% of Covid cases in the country among individuals younger than 18, according to a news release by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which initially sanctioned the emergency use and was backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In response to the federal approval, the Oak Park Department of Public Health launched a five-day vaccination clinic for its eligible children. From Nov. 9 to 13, the department held eight vaccine clinics for Oak Park School District 97 students across eight of the district’s elementary schools and hosted an additional event Nov. 13 for children who are homeschooled or attend private schools. At D97 alone, 2,292 students received their first dose of the Covid vaccine; plans to administer the second dose are set for early December.

Other District 97 parents such as Bryan James and Ranga Bodla said they were excited and relieved once they heard their children could get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

An epidemiologist, James told the Journal via Twitter he followed the conversations on vaccinating children younger than 12 “pretty closely for a loooooong time” and was “ecstatic” when the CDC made the final approval. James and Bodla said they also appreciated that the health department held the vaccine clinics at their children’s schools, so they felt safe and comfortable and surrounded by familiar faces.

On Twitter, James posted a couple photos of his daughter, 5-year-old Coraline, after she got her shot at one of the D97 schools. One of the pictures showed Coraline, a kindergartener, flexing her arm, showing off her band-aid and clutching a Dum-Dum lollipop, while another revealed her holding up a sign with a red circle and slash around the word “COVID.”

       “Even though she hates shots, she was very excited for this vaccine,” James said in a Twitter message. “She said she knew it meant she could one day play inside with her friends without a mask. She says she doesn’t even remember what it was like before being inside without a mask! and [sic] that it will be ‘weird.’”

       But not all parents from District 97 shared the same feelings as James and Bodla. Oak Park father Arnold Bacani said he was hesitant to sign up his son, Lucas, for a Covid vaccine. Bacani said he was worried about the vaccine side effects and that 6-year-old Lucas, who has special needs and is unable to verbally communicate, would not be able to relay how he felt afterward.

       “I don’t know any other people who got vaccinated at his age. I know other people who are 12 years old and above [who received the COVID-19 vaccine], but from 6 years old and above, I don’t know anyone yet,” Bacani said in Tagalog, noting he later decided to schedule Lucas for an appointment at Longfellow Elementary after learning more about the vaccine’s safety.

       For Bacani, Zobel, Bodla and James, they believe the latest vaccine effort adds another layer of protection for their children, one that is crucial to help bring a sense of normalcy back into their lives.

       “I know all parents need to make their own decisions, but as a nurse, I am absolutely on board with the multidisciplinary scientific community that’s coming up with these vaccines,” said Zobel. “I agree with, and support, and encourage getting a vaccine for everyone who’s able to in order to protect themselves, their family, their friends and anyone who’s unable to really get the vaccine.”

       “It’s an important step to make the pandemic manageable and to help make our families safer and to be able to have our kids return to some of their normal activities,” she said.

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