These days, the distance between ages 11 and 12 is more than a year. It is a chasm between danger and safety. Vaccines promise people 12 and older protection from COVID-19, but aren’t yet approved in the U.S. for younger children, and it isn’t clear exactly when they will be. Frustrated by the wait and desperate to protect their children, some parents are sneaking their 10- and 11-year-old kids across this chasm, and hoping not to get caught.
Meghan’s 10-year-old son has just started in-person school in Los Angeles County, and he’s fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Meghan asked to be identified by her first name only, because she’s afraid of consequences if her lies are found out.) This summer, the rapidly spreading Delta variant of the coronavirus had Meghan worried for her kids’ safety. Her older children, ages 12 and 15, are also fully vaccinated, but the vaccines are still not approved for children younger than 12. So Meghan lied about her 10-year-old’s age. And this wasn’t her first time.
This spring, Meghan took her 15-year-old to get vaccinated six months before she was eligible, because the local school district was considering a return to in-person classes. (It ultimately offered both in-person and virtual options for the end of last school year, so Meghan’s daughter kept attending remotely and then started in-person classes this school year.) Meghan told me she’d panicked because her daughter has severe asthma.
By the time the Pfizer vaccine was approved for ages 12 and up, Meghan’s middle child was eligible. That left her 10-year-old son the only one in the family who was unprotected. By August, with school starting in the fall and uncertainty persisting about the timeline of vaccine approval for kids under 12, Meghan had gotten frustrated. “The clock was ticking closer and closer to school, and I was getting more nervous as the Delta variant was burning through everywhere,” she said.
Meghan took both her daughter and her son to local pharmacies and lied about their birthdays. She told me she asked both her children whether they were okay with lying to get the vaccine, and both were on board. At her son’s appointment, the pharmacist made small talk with him, asking him what grade he was going into. “Sixth,” he answered without skipping a beat—his fake grade.
"I came home, and I felt probably the best I felt in a very long time … knowing that my entire family will be vaccinated," Meghan said.
I spoke with a couple of other parents whose 10- and 11-year-olds can “pass” for 12 and who have lied to get them vaccinated. (I agreed not to identify them, because they don’t want their lie to be widely known.) Many other parents have considered doing the same, even if they haven’t acted on it. Although the ethics are complicated, the logistics, for the most part, weren’t. Getting an unauthorized vaccine from a kid’s pediatrician’s office might be hard, because the child’s age is on file and doctors are held to ethical standards that prevent them from administering the vaccines off-label. But the parents I talked with took their children to supermarket pharmacies, chain pharmacies, and community vaccination clinics. In many cases, no proof of age was requested—the parents just had to show their own ID and fill out a form. And because the vaccine is free, an insurance card isn’t compulsory.
The pharmacists I spoke with in my area—Charlotte, North Carolina—confirmed that it’s possible under their procedures for parents to lie about their child’s age to get a vaccine. The CDC’s website states that pharmacies will not require proof of age, occupation, or residency. If a parent completes the necessary paperwork with a falsified birth date, and their child isn’t already in the pharmacy’s computer system, a pharmacist can do little to prove otherwise.
In terms of liability, as long as pharmacists follow their company guidelines, they’re likely to be protected from litigation, but parents might not be, David Reischer, an attorney based in New York City and a CEO of LegalAdvice.com, told me. “Parents lying about their children’s age to get children under 12 years of age vaccinated could be committing a crime, depending upon the jurisdiction where the consent form was unlawfully submitted,” Reischer said. Purposely misrepresenting information such as birth date, marriage status, date of death, and other vital information in state identity documents is unlawful in many jurisdictions. Whether immunization records are technically classified as vital records is unclear. Although Reischer thinks that parents are unlikely to be prosecuted for lying to get a child a vaccine, they could be, and might face fines, penalties, and imprisonment.
The possible medical consequences of these lies must also be considered. Robert Frenck, the director of vaccine research at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the principal investigator for most of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trials conducted there, empathizes with parents, but told me he is concerned that vaccinating young children with doses meant for older children could be unsafe. Part of his job is to help establish the dosage that gives children the best combination of immune response and safety. According to Frenck, parents who are lying about their kid’s age are potentially increasing the likelihood of their child having adverse events post-vaccination, such as fever, chills, and headache. When the vaccine is approved for younger kids, their dosage may be smaller if scientists determine that’s safer. “If we can give a lower dose and get the same immune response and have a better safety profile, I would think a parent would want that,” he said. He told me he believes that mask wearing and distancing can hold us over until the vaccines are available for everyone.
In a statement last week, the Food and Drug Administration also urged parents not to get unauthorized vaccines for their young children. “Just like you, we are eager to see our children and grandchildren vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible,” the statement reads. “We have to let the science and data guide us. The FDA is working around the clock to support the process for making COVID-19 vaccines available for children.”
Despite the risks, the parents I spoke with said they felt no guilt, no regret, only relief. Many of them believe that the known dangers of getting severely sick with COVID-19 are worse than any potential bad outcomes from a vaccine that hasn’t been approved for young children yet.
Hospitalizations of children have been on the rise as the Delta variant spreads through communities, and parents don’t have a ton of options to protect them. Though kids seem to remain at lower risk than adults for serious cases of COVID-19, as Katherine Wu wrote in The Atlantic, “Delta represents a more serious danger to everyone—which means it’s a more serious danger to kids as well.” Mask wearing and social distancing, our best non-vaccine tools to prevent the virus’s spread, aren’t practiced by everyone. Many schools have resumed in-person learning, and in some regions, they don’t require masks. The vaccines are still working very well to protect people against severe disease, but children under 12 don’t have access to that protection.
The vaccines will be approved for this group in stages after trials finish. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently said he anticipates that vaccines will be available for 5-to-11-year-olds sometime this fall, and that approval for younger age groups will follow. Parents feel frustrated that they’re expected just to wait and hope that the adults around their children get vaccinated and wear masks.
Maria, a mother of two children younger than 12, who asked to be identified by her middle name because she’s concerned about consequences for her actions, got her son vaccinated this summer, just three months before his 12th birthday. Their whole family was leaving the U.S. and returning to India, where they work and attend school for most of the year. “We had lived through some scary lockdown situations in India,” she told me, so the coronavirus felt “very real” to her kids. She explained to her son that this was a “life-and-death situation,” and he agreed to get the shot.
First, Maria consulted with her kids’ pediatrician, asking whether getting the vaccine for her son (once he was eligible) was safe, because he is on the small side. According to Maria, the doctor assured her that it was. She also spoke with friends of hers who are doctors; she said they told her the same thing. Ultimately, she felt comfortable with the information she received, so she made an appointment at a chain pharmacy from which she had never received medications, and fudged her son’s birthday. He got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine before leaving for school in India.
“He feels really happy and relieved. He feels safer,” Maria told me.
When I asked parents what they planned to do about potential record-keeping issues in the future—what if schools start requiring proof of vaccination, for instance—none of them was concerned. They said that when the time comes, they’ll confess what they did to whoever needs to know. Maria said that if she needs to prove vaccination status for her son, she’ll have him take an antibody test.
Abisola Olulade, a family-medicine doctor based in San Diego, emphasizes that antibody tests are not always reliable. The FDA has said that the currently available tests “have not been evaluated to assess the level of protection provided by an immune response to COVID-19 vaccination.” Olulade told me she empathizes with parents, but implores them to think about how lying could affect their child’s medical records further down the line for school, future employment, and upcoming travel: “If you have to fly and your child’s date of birth is used as an identifier, and their passport is looked at, does that invalidate their vaccine card?”
All parents are weighing the risks right now, but plenty are choosing to wait for approval, as horrible as waiting is. My friend Kimmery Martin deeply understands the risk of COVID-19—she’s an emergency-room-trained doctor who wrote a novel about a pandemic, and has long COVID herself, after getting sick last summer. Her older children are vaccinated, but her 10-year-old isn’t. She hasn’t considered lying to get her youngest vaccinated. “A lot of us want to err on the side of protecting against COVID-19 rather than protecting against theoretical and highly unlikely side effects of a vaccine,” she told me. “But you still have to go through the process to make sure there’s not something about children’s bodies that results in a bad outcome.”
The parents I spoke with who chose to lie believe that they did their risk assessment and are justified in their decision. They feel that they’ve been dealt an impossible hand, and that they couldn’t stand to wait for official approval when their children are in danger now.
“You can’t trust other people to do what’s best for your kid,” Meghan said. “You have to trust your gut. And motherhood, from the beginning of time, it’s about trusting your gut.”