A Winnipeg teen who secretly got a COVID-19 vaccine — despite the wishes of the 16-year-old’s anti-vaxxer parents — wants other students to know they have the right to make their own health-care decisions.
"It’s your body. It’s your choice. What you want to do with your body, that is completely up to you," said the high schooler, who asked the Free Press not publish their name to keep their secret.
Frustrated by family members touting misinformation, the inability to participate in activities with friends and the challenge of finding an employer that will hire an unvaccinated student, the Grade 11 student decided to take part in a pop-up clinic at their school earlier this fall.
“They were actually kind of open to the vaccine idea at the beginning, but after hearing all this stuff ‐ conspiracy theories, primarily on social media… they started leaning towards, ‘Oh, it’s very, very, very suspicious.’”
Since then, the student has been spending as much time outside of the house as possible and dodging dinner table conversations about the vaccine.
"They were actually kind of open to the vaccine idea at the beginning, but after hearing all this stuff — conspiracy theories, primarily on social media… they started leaning towards, ‘Oh, it’s very, very, very suspicious. What if this is a poison? What if they’re putting a microchip in it?’" said the teenager, who got vaccinated after doing their own research about the safety and effectiveness of the jab, which included consulting a physician.
"I’m so thankful that my friends have been there for me, throughout all of it because this whole thing has been so stressful."
Youth 12 and up in Manitoba can get doses of a COVID-19 vaccine at community clinics and school-based sites after regular instruction hours without a chaperone, as long as they are able to give the immunization team their informed consent. Health-care providers are responsible for assessing a mature minor’s ability to consent to any procedure before moving forward with it.
“With everything going on, everybody's stress level is a little bit higher, everybody’s anxiety is a little bit higher, so that ability to tolerate differences (has waned).” ‐ Registered family therapist Sandra Scott
Sandra Scott, a registered family therapist in Winnipeg, said divided views on the vaccine — which seem to be rigid and unwavering on both sides of the issue — have been straining relationships of all kinds.
"With everything going on, everybody's stress level is a little bit higher, everybody’s anxiety is a little bit higher, so that ability to tolerate differences (has waned)," said Scott, owner and clinic director at Thrive Counselling, adding fear is affecting people’s understanding so walls are going up during difficult conversations and preventing honest discussions.
The 16-year-old, who got immunized without their parents' knowledge in September, said they have had dozens of fights with family members about vaccination in recent months. "I just finished a week of very terrible mental health because of the guilt of betraying my parents. I could not face them after I got it. The day after, I could not look at them," said the student.
The teenager is unsure if they will get a follow-up jab because of their guilt and fear their parents will never trust them again if they find out about it. At the same time, the student said they will continue missing out on everything from field trips to restaurant outings if they do not — after already having experienced nearly two years of isolation.
“All of us have obligations to ensure that young people do have access to vaccines to keep them safe and healthy.” ‐ Acting children’s advocate Ainsley Krone
Scott recommends the student and others in their situation seek support from an adult they trust, be it a teacher or relative, to validate their choice.
A trusted adult can help advocate for a student who wants to have a conversation with their parents that does not escalate into a fight, said the therapist, who commended the 16-year-old for weighing their options and making an informed decision.
"All of us have obligations to ensure that young people do have access to vaccines to keep them safe and healthy," said Ainsley Krone, acting children’s advocate, noting it is key that educational campaigns about the safety of immunizations continue to reach vaccine-hesitant parents.
"They protect not only children, but the family around that child and the community around that family."
Krone encouraged any youth with concerns about getting a vaccine to seek support from the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth and research accurate information about vaccines via Health Links.
According to the province, Manitoba has not been specifically tracking the number of consents given by mature minors throughout the vaccine rollout.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.