Growing COVID-19 vaccine eligibility for young people and combatting hesitancy

From the onset, COVID-19 data showed that the most at-risk categories were the elderly and those immunocompromised; therefore, they were the first to become eligible for the vaccine. Now, as we’re turning a corner, those 12 years of age and older are getting their turn in the latest vaccine eligibility rollout. 

“While the overall rate of vaccination is slowing across the country, the fact that the vaccine is now available to a younger age group has spiked a demand among that age group,” says Steve Kelso, marketing and communications manager of the Kent County Health Department (KCHD). “There are two clinics scheduled by KCHD yet this week. The response so far to these clinics has been very good. Appointments are filling up quickly,” he says.

Although many states have been offering incentives for vaccinations, the state of Michigan has not officially launched an incentive program, nor has Kent County. The City of Detroit is giving away $50 gift cards for each shot, and also offering them to ‘good neighbors’ who transport other Detroiters to get their vaccines. Other state’s incentives include Ohio’s Vax-a-Million drawings, allowing vaccinated residents to enter weekly drawings with a prize up to $1 million, Maine’s distribution of free park passes or hunting/fishing licenses to vaccinated residents, and NYC’s provision of free MetroCards for vaccinated residents. 

For the past six weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows nationwide COVID-19 vaccination rates declining steadily. Kelso says locally the KCHD is not currently providing any incentives for vaccination, but the benefit of receiving the shot is protection. “The CDC recommends everyone 12 years or older should get a COVID-19 vaccine to help protect against the virus,” he says. “Getting the vaccine can help protect not only the recipient but family members, friends and the community as a whole. While we are seeing some restrictions loosen, we are also seeing more young people being diagnosed with the virus. The vaccines are safe and effective.”

Andrea Welsh, a parent/caregiver of two children ages 12 and 18 is also a COVID-19 vaccine coordinator and nurse for a clinic. Her 18-year-old received the Johnson & Johnson shot May 18 and her 12-year-old received his first Pfizer shot the weekend of May 15. With her firsthand experience working in the medical field, Welsh says the decision was a simple one, but also one that was made by her children.

“It is important for those who can get the vaccine to do so,” she says. “Variants are a real threat and every time someone contracts COVID, the chance of a variant forming increases. I am a vaccine coordinator for my clinic and have been living and breathing COVID info and stats for over a year and a half. I want my children safe. This is how to do it.”

When it comes to vaccine hesitancy, Welsh says it’s been difficult keeping on top of ever-changing information for her patients. “Sometimes, it would change several times a day,” she says. “I hate that COVID-19 has become political and I fear that has done so much damage to the public and to the vaccination effort. Misinformation is everywhere and it requires constant reeducation.”

Welsh has seen a hesitation within the 12+ year old age group, unsure of potential long-term effects, preventing some from scheduling their appointments to get the shot. “Again, much of this comes from misinformation … but getting reliable and accurate information helps with those fears and helps patients make an informed decision.”

Welsh refers to this defining moment as our generation’s ‘great war,’ so to speak. “Medical personnel everywhere will continue to do our part and we will keep asking everyone else to step up and do theirs as well,” she says. “We can beat this, but we must do it together.”

Bree Straayer

Grand Rapids resident Bree Straayer is an English and writing instructor and mother of three children, ages 14, 17, and 20, all scheduled to receive their first dose May 19. The decision to vaccinate her children wasn’t a sole one for Straayer, who has joint custody of her sons. “Their father is firmly against the vaccine,” she says. “This is partly what delayed my older son from getting it sooner. I finally let them decide — though if they said 'no,' there would have been some firm encouragement. They both want to be vaccinated.”

The motivation behind the decision to vaccinate is to prevent illness and also to reintroduce more freedom into the young people’s daily lives, like not being required to wear masks at school, says Straayer. Her family has experienced a range of positive COVID-19 cases.

The Straayer Family
“My son, Colton, had COVID and was pretty sick,” she says. “My parents both got COVID (in their late 60s and 70s), but they were asymptomatic. My brother and his family, including his young children, got COVID. My sister-in-law had long-term heart racing issues. She is a marathon runner and had to stop running for a while until it became better. My sister also had COVID and was very ill. She still has lingering migraines. Ironically, the two people in my family that have had the most ongoing issues were the two people who are incredibly fit and healthy.”

As for her family, ultimately, the pros outweigh the cons when it came to vaccinations. “I figure the whole world and some of the most brilliant minds have come together to make this vaccine,” Straayer says. “I mean, there is always some hesitation with new treatments in general … I had some hesitations in relation to the unknown, but I have to accept that risk and move forward. You just have to accept the risk at some point, so we can move forward.”

As of May 20, according to the COVID-19 vaccine dashboard, there have been 63,164 first doses administered for 12-15 year olds and 170,804 first doses administered for 16-19 year olds. 

KCHD vaccine clinics at community sites are being scheduled periodically, but appointments and walk-in vaccines are available now at various locations. As of now, the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine is the only one approved for 12+ recipients. Parent/guardians must be present for 12-15 year olds, and a parent/guardian permission note as well as an 18+ driver is required for those 16-17 years old. Registration is required and appointments can be made online, by calling KCHD at 616-326-6992 or by calling 2-1-1 for scheduling assistance.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at
Signup for Email Alerts