Jennifer Spengler is a health and wellness writer for Sharp Health News.
I have written about how my daughter, a 13-year-old eighth grader, participated in the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial for adolescents in 2020. I was incredibly proud of her for stepping up to help stop the spread of COVID when some adults refused to do so much as wear a face mask around others.
Unfortunately, it was her participation in that very trial that may have led to a recent breakthrough infection. And yet, we wouldn’t change a thing.
You see, most kids ages 12 to 15 could not roll up their sleeves for vaccination until May 2021, when the FDA granted the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorization for this group. But my daughter received her first vaccine dose on Dec. 15, 2020 — several months earlier and even before the majority of U.S. health care workers received their first shot. By mid-January 2021, she was fully vaccinated.
So, when she was exposed to COVID-19 at school in early December 2021, nearly a year later, the effectiveness of her vaccination had likely waned. While we hoped her immunization would continue to prevent infection, even as word of the omicron variant — and the variant itself — began to spread, we soon learned our luck and her protection had worn out.
However, not for a second have we felt disappointed in the effectiveness of the vaccines or regretted her trial participation. On the contrary, the lessons we learned from her breakthrough infection gave us more reason than ever to believe that vaccination is vital. It is our hope that in sharing our experience, more people will feel the same.
Here are some of our takeaways:
The COVID-19 vaccines work. My daughter had been exposed to people with COVID-19 previously during the pandemic. Not once before did the exposure cause infection. It was not until approximately a year after she received the vaccine that the virus was able to break through. Research has found that protection against infection remains high for six months after the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. So, her vaccination was effective nearly twice as long as expected. What’s more, studies now tell us that infection after vaccination may lead to “super immunity” to the coronavirus, which is super news to this parent.
Vaccinated people tend to experience mild or no symptoms. My daughter had a little congestion and a headache for a few days, starting about three days after her exposure. However, her discomfort was never great enough to make her want to stop binge-watching her favorite shows, put away the Lego set she was working on, or take a break from playing remote video games with her friends. Admittedly, she was a bit bored during her 10 days of isolation but rarely uncomfortable, and over-the-counter pain relievers, hydration and lots of TLC helped keep her that way.
The boosters worked for the rest of us. My husband, our adult daughter who came home from college for the holidays, and I all received vaccine booster shots. While we were careful around our infected one, we weren’t overly exacting about maintaining 6 feet at all times or keeping her restricted to just one room. We allowed her to sit in the family room — several feet away and masked — to watch a movie, and we set up a chair and TV tray about 8 feet away a few times so she could join our dinner conversations. And because I hated not being able to hug her while she was isolated, I occasionally gave her a quick squeeze from behind, which she thought was “totally weird” — she’s 13, after all — but felt “totally great” to me.
COVID-19 can be slow to show. One Monday in December, we received notification from our daughter’s school that she was considered a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 during that morning’s on-campus COVID screening. A student she spent over an hour with that same morning later confirmed it was their test that came back positive. Because of this exposure, my daughter was tested every day that week. It wasn’t until Friday night that an at-home antigen test displayed a positive result — all other test results had been negative until then. She did not test positive for more than four full days after the initial exposure and one full day after she began to experience symptoms. However, research tells us she could have been contagious to others up to two days before she started to experience symptoms or tested positive.
Even if mild, COVID-19 can be alarming. I work in health care, so I hear the latest data on COVID-19 case numbers (still shockingly high), read many of the studies, and know that even kids can become severely ill. While we were very lucky that she was vaccinated, we were vaccinated and boosted, and our daughter’s case was mild, I couldn’t help but worry about the many “what ifs” surrounding COVID. We were unable to learn which variant she was exposed to, so what if delta — thought to possibly cause more severe illness than omicron — had caused her infection and could have led to more serious complications? What if her breathing, heart or other organs were affected? What if she experienced long-term symptoms? All of these things are preventable with vaccination, so I can’t imagine going without, now that we have such safe and effective options.
While I obviously wish that my daughter had never been exposed to COVID-19 or had the illness, I am incredibly pleased that she is doing so well, and that we can share what we learned. We know how fortunate we are to have access to safe and effective vaccines, have a school that places importance on regularly testing students to prevent further spread, and that we had the space and know-how to keep the rest of the family safe throughout her contagiousness.
Our greatest takeaway from this experience is that our daughter is now healthy and well, and we have the vaccines — and her participation in the vaccine trials along with thousands of others — to thank for that. Hopefully, those who have yet to be vaccinated will join us in recognizing the value in receiving a COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves, their loved ones and everyone in our community.