As young children get vaccinated, families feel the ‘freedom of our pre-pandemic life’

By: - November 16, 2021 3:51 am

Ilana Kalmowitz, 10, after getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Last month, Allison Gallinati sat in a hospital room, watching over her 6-year-old daughter, Avery, who was struggling to breathe due to COVID-19 complications and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“We were within a couple hours of her being intubated when she suddenly started responding to the medication. We spent a lot of time wondering if she was gonna end up intubated,” said Gallinati, who lives in Wyandotte. “Our biggest fear was that she was going to end up on a ventilator and we didn’t know how long that was going to be.”

After four long days in the hospital, Gallanti was holding out hope that once her daughter recovered she would be able to get vaccinated against COVID. 

Avery is asthmatic, so getting the vaccination “was never a question” for the Gallanti family — it is just a matter of time. 

A couple weeks after Avery was released from the hospital on Nov. 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. That’s almost a year after vaccines were approved for adults.

It is important to get children ages five and up vaccinated as quickly as possible to save even more lives and reduce serious illness,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) director Elizabeth Hertel in a statement earlier this month. “Working together we can help some of our youngest Michiganders get back to more normal activities with friends, sports teams, classmates and more.”

She can start experiencing those childhood rites of passage that she's been missing.

– Erin Stepek, a mother from Wayland

About 825,000 more Michigan children are now eligible to get the shot. As of Nov. 9, 14,169 Pfizer pediatric doses have been administered to children under 12 in Michigan. 

Nationally, 5- to 11-year-old make up about 9% of COVID-19 cases across the U.S. and an estimated 40% of pediatric cases. Of those children hospitalized for COVID-19, 146 have died and 5,000 have since been diagnosed with Multisystem Inflammatory Disorder.

Michigan’s COVID-19 cases have been on the rise for the last few months. As of Monday, the state is reporting 1,209,712 total cases and 22,862 deaths. More than 63,000 children up to age 9 and nearly 156,000 Michiganders ages 10- to 19- years old have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state as of Monday.  

Positive cases in kids are likely being missed, said Dr. Russell Faust, Oakland County Health Division medical director and pediatric ear, nose, and throat surgeon.

“Though most cases of COVID in children are mild, kids can still spread the virus to others – people at home, at school, and others. Because their symptoms are often mild, kids are often not tested,” Faust said. 

Avery was on breathing treatments for about a month after being hospitalized and the family is waiting on her pediatrician to start clinics so she can get her vaccine. 

“Honestly for a 6 year old, I’m surprised she’s looking forward to the vaccine. She said she’s gonna try to keep her crying to a minimum,” Gallanti said. “It’s something she expects she’s going to be getting because she knows it’s going to help protect her.”

Many parents like Gallinati are making the decision to vaccinate their young children now that it is available, especially parents whose children attend schools without mask mandates this year. As of Nov. 9, 42% of school districts in Michigan still have a school mask policy, according to the state. 

While angry anti-mask and anti-vaccination parents crowding school board meetings and protesting outside schools have garnered national attention,  there are thousands of families who are ready to vaccinate their young children and return to some semblance of normalcy. 

Carter Griffoen, 11, receives his COVID-19 vaccine on Nov. 10, 2021.

Marie Griffioen, a mother from Ada, didn’t hesitate when her 11-year-old son, Carter, became eligible for the vaccine. 

“Ever since this whole pandemic started, I have had zero vaccine hesitancy. We’ve been waiting for it and viewing it as a gift, not something to be scared of or shy away from,” Griffioen said. “We, as a family, are very pro-science and doing what’s best for society and for our family members who are at risk.”

Griffioen’s children attend Forest Hills Public School District. Like several districts across the state, there has been backlash from some residents and right-wing activists who disagree with the district’s mask mandate. Forest Hills, which is in Kent County just outside of Grand Rapids, still has a mask mandate but it’s set to be lifted Jan. 3 now that the vaccine is available for younger children. 

Erin Stepek, a mother from Wayland, said that when Allegan County dropped its mask mandate for schools on Sept. 30 it became even more urgent for her 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte, to get the vaccine. 

“My daughter is continuing to wear her mask, but very few other kids are,” Stepek said. “We have been taking all the precautions that we have control over, not gathering indoors in groups and not having playdates, but my daughter has missed out over the past 18 months.”

Like many other kids during the pandemic, Charlotte missed birthday parties, piano lessons and gymnastics.

“We were very, very eager to be able to allow her that opportunity and get that vaccine, so that when she is fully vaccinated, she can start experiencing those childhood rites of passage that she’s been missing,” Stepek said. 

Rachel Kalmowitz, a mother in Birmingham, said her 10-year-old daughter, Ilana, also has been eager to return to her normal life after getting her first vaccination shot Sunday. 

Just the idea that now we can do some of the things that we haven't done in so long, that have felt so distant and so impossible to me, it feels amazing.

– Rachel Kalmowitz, a mother in Birmingham

Kalmowitz, who is a cantor at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township, said her daughter hasn’t been able to attend indoor services with their family out of concern that she could contract the virus there.

The family also has not been able to travel to see elderly family members who live out of state or go to see Broadway productions, like “Wicked,” Ilana’s favorite, in New York City — something she loves. 

“Just the idea that now we can do some of the things that we haven’t done in so long, that have felt so distant and so impossible to me, it feels amazing. And the fact that it helps our entire community is this huge added bonus,” Kalmowitz said. “I will still be cautious, but it opens a lot of doors for us and allows us to have some of that freedom of our pre-pandemic life.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8.