Every weekend since January, pediatrician Cora Collette Breuner has volunteered to give the COVID-19 vaccine to individuals from age 12 to 96 in an underserved community in Washington state.
Even though the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe and effective, there's still quite a bit of hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their teenage children, says Breuner, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital and a past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Adolescence. "They have questions and they have questions," she says.
Breuner patiently answers them all. Even then, parents—who have the final say in whether their child gets the vaccine—may be reluctant to sign off on it.
In 41 states, parents must consent for minors under age 18 to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. One state—Nebraska—requires parental consent for individuals under age 19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Healthcare workers can't legally give teens COVID-19 vaccines otherwise. In a May report, the nonprofit healthcare organization highlights that from a legal perspective, "the landscape may be shifting slightly as more jurisdictions seek to encourage vaccination of young people."
Meanwhile, as the Delta variant creates a new surge in cases, some ethicists and pediatricians argue that state laws should be amended or loosened to allow minors to consent to COVID-19 vaccination on their own, without the need for parental permission.
"COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician John Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
There are compelling arguments in favor of letting minors consent on their own, says Robyn Shapiro, a health care lawyer and a bioethicist in the Milwaukee area. "By that, I mean they're either old enough or they're evaluated in such a way that they have sufficient understanding of what they're agreeing to."
Shapiro and other ethicists argue that teens are perfectly capable of giving "informed consent"—a key principle in ethics that means fully understanding the benefits and risks of a medical intervention. To give informed consent, a person must be able to process that information in line with their own values. Only then can they make an autonomous choice and sign a consent form, Shapiro says.
Most states already have laws permitting minors to consent to testing and treatments related to sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, behavioral health, and substance abuse. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to add COVID-19 vaccination to the list, Shapiro says. New Jersey and New York have introduced bills to let teens as young as 14 to consent to getting the COVID-19 vaccine and Minnesota has proposed a bill to allow children as young as 12 to give consent.
With any medical test or intervention, doctors often wrestle with how to best involve teens in conversations about their own health care, says John Lantos, a pediatrician and director of the Bioethics Center at Children's Mercy Kansas City.
"Most bioethicists would say that [teens] should be included to the degree that they have decision-making capacity," he says. "In most cases, that means including them in discussions with their parents in trying to achieve consensus about what the best choice may be."
COVID-19 vaccination also presents a unique circumstance, Lantos notes. It raises the question: Should teens have greater decisional authority because it's a public health emergency? In his opinion, the answer is yes. "COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
In North Carolina, state legislators are moving to do the opposite. State law currently allows those under 18 to make vaccination decisions on their own, but on Aug. 5, North Carolina's General Assembly approved a Republican-sponsored bill requiring parental consent for 12- to 17-year-olds to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Kyle Brothers, a pediatrician in Louisville, Kentucky, says it's "ethically justifiable" for states to permit adolescents, especially those on the verge of adulthood, to consent to COVID-19 vaccination and other straightforward medical care.
In many cases, 16- and 17-year-old adolescents are capable of making well-informed decisions, says Brothers, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Section on Bioethics. "The problem is, the law tends not to have that level of nuance," he adds. "We know in the real world that maturing and developing the ability to make decisions is a continuous process, but the law sets a bright line at age 18."
Lacking parental consent, some defiant teens are researching avenues to get vaccinated without their mom's or dad's knowledge. They may have turned to VaxTeen.org, a site operated by a Los Angeles teenager that provides information on consent laws by state.
If parents are wavering on the decision to give consent, Breuner recommends that they speak with a trusted healthcare provider about their specific concerns. These kinds of dialogues often can clarify lingering worries and may help drive up consent rates for teen vaccination.
Vaccine-hesitant parents should hear out their teens who wish to be vaccinated. Teenagers have their own opinions and belief systems, and parents should respect their child's choice to be vaccinated if they wish, considering the minimal risk of harm and the significant benefit to society as a whole.
George J. Annas, professor and director at the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University, says parents have a legal obligation to provide their children with necessary medical treatment, or they could be found guilty of child neglect. The circumstances vary, but in the face of unrelenting COVID-19, he says parents have an ethical duty to consent to teens' vaccination because "the disease is rampant and children are dying."
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"Vaccine passports" are a system that requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of engaging in activities that pose a risk of transmitted SARS-CoV-2. Digital Health Passes (DHPs) are typically a smartphone application with a code that verifies whether someone has been vaccinated.
Vaccine passports could very much be in our future. Many businesses are implementing or planning to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace. Colleges and universities have announced vaccine requirements for students, staff, and faculty. It may not be long before the private sector requires a vaccination card or image to attend an entertainment or sporting event, to travel, or even to dine or shop indoors, at least in some venues.
But it's unlikely the federal government or the states will launch DHPs, at least not in the near-term. President Biden announced the White House has no intention of requiring proof of vaccination. While no state has mandated DHPs, New York is piloting its Excelsior Pass on a voluntary basis, partnering with IBM. Other nations are not so hesitant. Israel's "Green Pass" has gotten the nation back to normal in record time. And various countries and regions are planning DHPs, including the European Union and the United Kingdom. Foreign airlines are likely to require proof of vaccination as a condition of flying internationally.
DHPs could emerge as a way to get us back to normal more quickly, but are they ethical? Let's start with the law. The US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has specifically said that employers have the legal right to require proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to work. Colleges and universities already require several vaccines for students living in dorms. Hospitals and nursing homes often mandate influenza vaccinations. And, of course, all states require childhood vaccinations for school attendance. Vaccine passports are lawful but are they ethical? The short answer is "yes" but only if we ensure no one is left behind.
Vaccine passports "don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus."
Why are vaccine passports ethical? Vaccines are a miracle of modern science, but they have become a political symbol, and a significant part of the population doesn't want to get a jab. The rare cases of blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines have only created more distrust.
Most opposition to vaccine passports hinges on the claim that they infringe personal autonomy and liberty. But this argument misses the point. Of course, every competent adult has the right to make decisions that affect his or her own health and safety. But no one has a right to infringe on the rights of others, such as by exposing them to a potentially serious or deadly infectious disease. An individual can't claim the right to attend a crowded event mask-less and unvaccinated. This was once accepted across the political spectrum. Conservative economists called it an "externality," that is a person has no right to harm others. The U.S. has lost the tradition of the common good. We have become so focused on our own individual rights that we forget about our ethical obligations to our neighbors and to our community.
In fact, DHPs actually don't force anyone to be vaccinated against his or her will. They simply say to individuals that if you choose not to be vaccinated, you can't work or recreate in public spaces that risk transmission of the virus.
DHPs also don't infringe on privacy. Again, everyone has the choice whether to show proof of vaccination. It isn't required. Moreover, DHPs may actually protect privacy because all they do is show whether or not you have been vaccinated. They don't disclose any other personal medical information. All of us actually have already had to show proof of vaccination as a condition of going to school. Thus, DHPs are well established in the United States.
But there is one ethical argument against DHPs that I find to be powerful, and that is equity. If we require proof of vaccination while doses are scarce, we will give the already privileged even more privilege. And that would be unconscionable. Thus, DHPs should not be implemented until everyone who wants a vaccine is able to get a vaccine. Equity isn't a side issue. It needs to be front and center.
As of today, all adults in the U.S. are eligible to get vaccinated, and President Biden has pledged that by the end of May there will be enough doses to vaccinate the entire U.S. population. It is a realistic promise. Once vaccines become plentiful, everyone should get their shot. All Food and Drug Administration authorized vaccines are highly safe and effective, even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that the FDA has just put on pause.
Businesses have an economic incentive to require proof of vaccination. Very few of us would feel comfortable returning to our jobs, shops, theaters, or restaurants unless we feel safe. Businesses understand the duty to create safer places for work, recreation, and commerce.
One question has dominated national conversation since the pandemic began. "When will we get back to normal?" There is a deep human yearning to hug family and friends, see our work colleagues, recreate, and be entertained. One day we will have defeated this wily virus and get back to normal. But vaccine passports can help us get back to the things we love faster and more safely. As long as we don't leave anyone behind, using this miracle of modern science to make our lives better is both lawful and ethical.
Editor's Note: This op/ed is part of a "Big Question" series on the ethics of vaccine passports. Read the flip-side argument here.