Harley Martin, a 15-year-old with Crohn’s disease and cerebral palsy, said she’s looking forward to going out in public and hanging out with friends once she completes her COVID-19 vaccine series.
Shortly after 10 a.m. Thursday, an exclamation of grateful glee sounded from a room at Marshfield Clinic Medical Center-Eau Claire, courtesy of Harley Martin.
The 15-year-old girl from Chippewa Falls had just received her first COVID-19 vaccination after living in fear since the coronavirus surfaced in Wisconsin that she would contract the contagious, potentially deadly virus. Martin is among the first children in the western part of the state to receive the vaccine protecting her from the virus.
“I’m ecstatic,” Harley said several hours after receiving her vaccination. “I’m really happy about it. Honestly, I just want my life back to normal. I want everybody’s life back to normal.”
Thursday was the first day children as young as 12 could begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine after the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention had approved the Pfizer vaccine for that age group. Previously, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccinations were available to people ages 16 and older. The Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines are still restricted to adults.
The opportunity for a COVID-19 vaccination was especially meaningful to Harley and her family. She has cerebral palsy and Crohn’s disease, both of which make her more susceptible to contracting the contagious, potentially deadly virus and to enduring more severe effects if she was infected.
In addition to her medical conditions that make her more likely to get sick from the virus, Harley faces another risk factor. Every five weeks, she receives medication intravenously that lowers her body’s immune response, making it more likely she could catch the illness if exposed to it.
So the Martins did everything they could to keep COVID-19 at bay. Harley rarely left her family’s home, only venturing out for doctor’s appointments. For the most part, she attended school virtually. She refrained from seeing friends in person, relying instead on virtual visits.
In February, Harley underwent major surgery to have her hips realigned so she can sit comfortably in her wheelchair. During her week-long stay at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Minnesota, Harley could only have one visitor—her mother, Stacy Martin—and they could not leave the hospital’s fourth floor.
Even interaction with extended family was extremely limited. Harley went a year without seeing her grandparents in person. On Easter Sunday, her family shared dinner with relatives in their driveway, remaining socially distant as they celebrated the holiday together.
“We just couldn’t risk [Harley] getting sick, or going to the grocery, or anything like that,” Stacy said. “But it takes a toll. She was upset and couldn’t see friends. She really didn’t go anywhere, and after a while that got to be really, really hard.”
When Stacy heard COVID-19 vaccinations were approved for children ages 12-15, she was overjoyed and couldn’t wait to get her daughter in as soon as possible.
“I thought, ‘You’re going to be first in line. I need to get her vaccinated,’” Stacy said. “And then when we got [to the hospital], we really were the first ones in line.”
Pandemic-related restrictions are being waived as more people are being vaccinated and numbers of new cases and hospitalizations are generally low across the nation. On Thursday the CDC announced fully vaccinated people can safely stop wearing face masks indoors and outdoors, although they will still be required in healthcare settings, at businesses that require them, or on public transportation.
While children are less likely to be adversely impacted by the virus, they can be carriers of it and transmit it to others. Successfully vaccinating that population would move the vaccination effort closer toward herd immunity, thereby reducing the chances of future virus outbreaks, health officials said.
Vaccinating as many people as possible, including children, is “vitally important” to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections, said Dr. Prabha Dakshayini, a pediatrician at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire. People with health conditions like Harley are especially at risk of exposure to the virus, she said.
“Those most at risk of severe infection, and potentially dire consequences, are immune compromised individuals,” Dakshayini said.
How many parents will have their children vaccinated against the virus remains to be seen. Hospital officials in west-central Wisconsin said demand has been strong so far.
COVID-19 vaccinations of people 16 and older have slowed significantly in Wisconsin and elsewhere across the US in recent weeks, prompting health officials to reach out to target populations in an attempt to boost those numbers.
Harley and her mother said they’re grateful for the opportunity for the teen to get vaccinated. In upcoming weeks, after her second shot, Harley looks forward to resuming such life activities as venturing out in public and visiting with friends.
“It will feel good to get back to normal, to get my life back,” she said.
And even as she felt mild side effects of her vaccination late Thursday, Harley had a message for others.
“People have lost their lives over this,” she said. “We need to get past this [pandemic]. So let’s get vaccinated.”