Inside a CVS Pharmacy in Fort Worth on Monday evening, the Howe twins huddled with their mom near a booth designated for children getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The family’s excitement was palpable as they waited for the pharmacist to bring out their shots. The 11-year-olds bounced on their feet and debated who should go first.
“Is this your best moment as a mom?” Stephen Howe asked.
Laura Howe patted his back and laughed.
“Yeah, it’s one of them,” she said.
Rachel and Stephen Howe are among the millions of American children who became eligible for Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 shot last week after federal regulators gave final clearance for kids ages 5 to 11 to gain access to protection against the coronavirus. The emergency-use authorization for the age group came nearly a full year after the shots were approved for adults.
For many families with kids in that age group, getting the vaccine means having more opportunities to return to a pre-pandemic lifestyle.
Laura Howe grabbed the first appointments she could find for her twins, the last unvaccinated members of her household, about 35 miles from their Coppell home. After waiting months for the approval, she said she didn’t care about the drive.
“I remember when I got my first vaccine, it was a really emotional moment for me, and I even cried because it just opened up possibilities that weren’t there before,” she said. “They just didn’t have that emotional security and physical security.”
After picking an arm (left for Stephen, because it would least affect his trombone playing, and right for Rachel, because she’s left-handed) and getting the vaccine, the twins sat down for a short observation period.
“I’m excited just to feel more safe at school,” Stephen said, intermittently massaging his arm to ensure he wouldn’t be too sore the next day.
The twins agreed that one of the most exciting prospects of vaccination is having the option to forgo masks. They regularly wear N95 masks to their sixth-grade classes, and they have proof that they’ve worked — both children have been in close contact with a student who had COVID-19, and neither tested positive.
“Now that I’ve gotten vaccinated, I can feel a lot more safe,” Rachel said.
Rachel said she’ll be able to shed her mask in her dance and piano classes. And at their church, the twins will now have the option of singing instead of humming, which is recommended for unvaccinated members of the congregation.
But Laura Howe said she’s most excited that her kids will now be able to do “normal, sixth-grade things.”
While the Howe family has traveled some together over the last year, the twins have still been largely confined to time with family.
“It’ll be nice to have sleepovers with friends again,” Rachel said. “Now it’s nice to not have to worry.”
Stephen is excited to finally use his gift card to the entertainment venue Main Event, which he got just before the pandemic, and to go on vacation with his family. The kids are excited for a worry-free Christmas with family in North Carolina.
“Now it’s just counting down the days until this shot is really fully active, and then the second shot in three weeks,” Laura Howe said, smiling.
Eight-year-old Quinn Jones told her mom that she was going to run into the street and shout for joy when she and her twin brother got their COVID-19 shot.
“She’s always like, ‘The minute a vaccine’s out, Mom, I’m going to get it. I’m going to run in the street and just scream, ‘I’m back, baby!’ with her arms out,” Tori Jones said. “She’s social. She’s ready to be around people and ready to do her thing again.”
Jones signed up Quinn and her brother, Max, for a trial of Moderna’s pediatric vaccine in the spring, and both kids got their second shot about a month ago. But Tori Jones didn’t know whether her kids received a real shot or a placebo.
As it became clearer that Pfizer’s pediatric shot would be approved, she took her children for an antibody test. Quinn had received the vaccine, but Max hadn’t.
When Pfizer’s shot was approved for younger children Nov. 2, Tori Jones had a decision to make: Moderna offered the vaccine to kids who received a placebo, but Max could get a Pfizer shot quicker.
Ultimately, she decided to keep her son in the trial. Tori Jones was a nurse for nearly 20 years, and her husband is a physician in the emergency department at Parkland Memorial Hospital who works with COVID-19 patients daily. The couple agreed it was best to keep Max in the trial.
“To help science and to help other people along was a big plus for us,” she said.
While Quinn is protected, the family has agreed to keep taking the same precautions until Max is fully vaccinated. Their father’s experiences in the hospital have greatly influenced how careful they have been throughout the pandemic.
“One night he intubated a 40-year-old guy who looked really healthy and was married and had two kids,” Tori Jones said. “And he’s like, ‘That’s me.’ It could be anybody.”
Their family has been close to some of the most devastating effects of the virus: The twins’ great aunt and uncle died two weeks apart from COVID-19 around Thanksgiving last year.
Tori Jones is also concerned about the possibility of her kids contracting multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a sometimes serious COVID-19 complication in children.
“There are some unknowns [with a trial vaccine], but we know what goes on with COVID,” Tori Jones said. “The risk was less for us to go with the vaccine than to risk getting COVID.”
For the Jones twins, the COVID-19 vaccine means they’ll regain the opportunity to enroll in extracurricular activities (gymnastics for Quinn, and basketball for Max) and go back to having playdates with friends. Their family has been the most conservative among their friends when it comes to returning to a more-normal lifestyle, which has sometimes been hard on the children.
“I know they have friends that had been going to birthday parties or doing different things that we weren’t doing,” Tori Jones said. “We just keep talking to them about, well, this is the choice we made for our family and we just don’t want you to get sick.”
Quinn said she wants to travel to Disney World when Max gets his second shot. Max is eager to go to Pinstack, a bowling and entertainment venue, when he’s fully vaccinated next month.
“They have lots of arcade games,” he said, his eyes widening at the prospect despite the fatigue he was fighting from his first COVID-19 shot a few days prior.
As an extra bonus, their mom has promised to throw them a special birthday party to make up for the passing of their special day in October.
“I kept hoping that it [the pediatric vaccine] was going to come out before,” Tori Jones said. “I said, ‘Let’s just wait until like December, after Max can get a second shot, wait a week or so, and we’ll have a huge birthday party. We’ll invite your whole grade to have a big blowout.’”