A teenager traveled to Philadelphia to get vaccinated against his parents’ wishes

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High school student Nicolas Montero stays busy. He runs the track, works nights and weekends at Burger King, and does his homework at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

But Nicolas’ busy schedule is also strategic: it’s a way to stay out of the house.

Nicolas and his parents are separated by a widening political and cultural divide: his parents are part of a small but vocal minority who oppose covid-19 vaccinations and refused to let him get vaccinated.

“The problem with these beliefs is that they alternate every day,” said Nicolas, who is 16. “It’s not a solid thing they’re going with, so it’s really baseless. It’s like something they see on Facebook and then they completely believe it.

The standoff eventually led to a silent act of defiance: Nicolas traveled to Philadelphia, where a little-known regulation allows children 11 and older to be vaccinated without parental consent.

Not all states require parental consent for vaccination. Alabama allows teens 14 and older to consent to their own medical care, including vaccinations. In Oregon, the age is 15; Rhode Island and South Carolina allow 16-year-olds to self-inoculate. In Delaware, you only need to be 12 to get vaccinated against sexually transmitted infections. In Pennsylvania, minors can make their own medical decisions under specific circumstances — if they marry, are legally emancipated from their parents, enlist in the military, or are pregnant, for example.

California lawmakers are considering a bill allowing children 12 and older to give consent for FDA-approved vaccines, which they currently can only do for vaccinations against certain STIs. San Francisco already allows children at least 12 years old to consent to the covid-19 vaccine.

A November 2021 KFF poll found that 30% of parents of children aged 12 to 17 said they would definitely not have their children vaccinated. In light of this, two academics from the National Institutes of Health wrote an article in the New England Journal of Medicine arguing for states to expand their statutes to include covid vaccines as a medical treatment that minors can consent to.

A divided house

Nicolas said he believed most of his parents’ beliefs about the vaccine came from social media.

“I try to explain to them that vaccines are safe. They are effective,” said Nicolas. “I try to explain that we know people who have been vaccinated, even members of our own family who have been vaccinated for months and have not experienced any side effects. But nothing seems to reach them. »

Nicolas’ parents did not respond to multiple attempts by WHYY News to speak to them for this article.

Although he has found a way to change his own situation, Nicolas worries about teenagers who cannot travel to a place where the laws are different. “I know this is something that teenagers all over the country are going through right now,” Nicolas said.

So he wrote an op-ed in his high school newspaper, The Playwickian, advocating for the age of consent for vaccines in Pennsylvania to be lowered to 14.

Last summer, after school ended, he didn’t have to be in the suburbs to go to school, so he asked his aunts if he could visit them in Philadelphia.

“He gets to roam the city, enjoying city life. He loves it,” said Nicolas’ aunt, Brittany Kissling, who lives in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia. “The kid didn’t want to leave.”

A week turned into a whole summer.

While Nicolas was staying in Philadelphia, bouncing between the homes of his two aunts, his friends were getting their first covid shots. He was afraid of getting sick. Worse still, he feared passing a coronavirus infection to his elderly grandmother.

“My abuela, she is fully vaccinated, boosted and everything,” said Nicolas. But he said he still fears he could transmit a breakthrough infection.

So he started to do research. And he found the handful of states that allow teens to get vaccinated without parental consent.

To his surprise, Nicholas discovered that a bill to change the law in Pennsylvania had been introduced in the state House of Representatives. If the measure were to become law, it would mean that anyone 14 and older could give informed consent to be vaccinated against any vaccine recommended by the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

As his research deepened, he learned that not only was it possible for minors to get vaccinated without parental consent in other states, but it was legal in Philadelphia.

In 2007, the city’s board of health passed a bylaw that allows any minor age 11 or older to be vaccinated without a parent, as long as the youngster can give informed consent.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said the regulations are designed to remove any additional barriers to vaccination.

“It can be very difficult, especially for low-income parents, to take time off work to get to these appointments,” Bettigole said. “These are low-risk interventions. It simply allows parents and families to ensure that their children are vaccinated. »

The regulations went into effect the year after the FDA approved a three-shot human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine regimen for young people, recommended in the years before they become sexually active.

It’s common for states and municipalities to create specific legislation for minors in an effort to increase access to vaccines that prevent sexually transmitted infections, said Brian Dean Abramson, author and adjunct professor of vaccine law at Florida. International University College of Law.

“The underlying reasoning was that you can have children who are being abused and don’t necessarily want their parents to know that they are seeking medical interventions for that, or children who may be sexually active and are afraid that their parents will react very negatively to this if they seek some kind of medical treatment,” Abramson said.

In turn, Abramson said, those policies laid the groundwork for children to get vaccinated in the event of a disagreement like the one between Nicholas and his parents.

Take care of yourself

Nicolas was thrilled to learn about the Philadelphia regulations. One summer afternoon, while his aunt was at work, Nicolas found a pop-up clinic in Philadelphia offering vaccines. He was anxious during his bus ride – not because of the needles or the side effects, but that his parents were going to catch him somehow and prevent him from getting the second shot.

He knew his aunts would support his vaccination – they had both been, and Kissling runs a pediatric practice. But he feared that if his aunts found out, his parents would know. So he didn’t tell them in advance.

He returned to Bucks County for the start of the school year and arranged a weekend visit in early September to see his aunts and grandmother. He planned the trip just in time for his second dose.

“I felt really liberated when I got my second shot,” Nicolas said. “I felt like I was protected”

After this second vaccine, Nicolas told his aunts that he had been vaccinated; they were amazed.

“He was so proud,” Kissling recalled. “He had his card, and we were like, ‘Wait, when did that happen? How did that happen?'”

Just before Thanksgiving, Nicolas’ parents found out. They reacted as Nicholas and his aunts feared they would: Kissling said Nicholas’ mother accused his sisters of influencing him and being negligent enough to allow him to be vaccinated. The tension has risen to the point that Nicolas says he can’t even talk to his parents.

Kissling said her family rarely talked about politics until recently. Now, she says, it’s hard for the whole family to spend time together. She left in the middle of dinners to go home to Philadelphia because the discussion got so heated. She doesn’t expect a resolution any time soon — her family is more likely to sweep the conflict under the rug than resolve it, she said.

“Now there’s a gap,” Kissling said. “It’s sad because at the end of the day, family should be family.”

To cope with the tension at home, Nicolas has doubled down on his extracurricular activities: he is learning the pole vault for the athletics team. He joined the school newspaper, in addition to participating in environmental and language clubs.

Every evening after school, he claims one of the private rooms of the public library, where he spreads his books on a small desk and diligently does his homework. Recently, he was working on an article about the history of American involvement in Puerto Rico, where his grandmother is from. He was leafing through a large book on the Puerto Rican independence movement, marked with dozens of sticky notes every few pages.

“When I started reading this book, like almost every page, my mouth was hanging open,” Nicolas said. “For example, I couldn’t believe these things happened to my people.”

He hopes to visit the island one day, and his grandmother teaches him how to cook Puerto Rican dishes while he waits. They can now spend time together without him worrying so much that he might infect her.

Nicholas has ambitions to go to college in Washington, DC From there, he says, he wants to go to law school.

Kissling said she was inspired by her nephew’s independence. But she knows he is still a child who needs support and guidance. That’s why she tries to keep in touch with him every day: texting, joking, asking him what he wants for Christmas. (She was expecting AirPods or Amazon gift cards. Instead, he sent her a wish list of more Puerto Rico history books.)

“He plays with a smile, and he laughs about it, and he goes, ‘Aunt Britt, this just gives me more motivation to do what I need to do and get where I want to go,'” Kissling said of her. . the nephew’s strained relationship with his parents. “But, deep down, I know it must affect him. I’m 34 years old. It would affect me.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WHYNPR and KHN.

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