As of Valentine’s Day, almost 900,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered to Minnesotans. Of those, 1,128 were administered to 16 and 17 year olds.
Among the teenagers receiving vaccinations are two Eden Prairie High School juniors who are considered essential workers during a global pandemic.
Iesh Gujral, 16, is a junior volunteer at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. Annika Welter, 17, is a dietary worker at Castle Ridge, a senior living community in Eden Prairie.
Each received the Pfizer vaccine – the only one approved for anyone under 18 years of age. More than 153 teens ages 16 and 17 were included in the Pfizer trial and the early analysis of that data found no safety issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which advises the CDC on vaccine use, identified health care personnel as essential caregivers, including volunteers and dietary workers in hospitals and long term care facilities, to be among the first vaccine recipients.
First and youngest
Iesh’s work as a volunteer was paused shortly after the pandemic began. When he was asked to return in November, he and his parents had lengthy conversations about whether he should.
“It was a really tough decision,” he said. “But in the end, if I can help people at the hospital its probably the best thing I can do.” His parents supported his decision.
Junior volunteers typically make deliveries throughout the hospital, from lab samples to patient flowers. Even though they have no direct contact with patients, they do work with other staff members, Iesh said.
Even knowing that the hospital is caring for patients with COVID-19, Iesh said that the training he received combined with the safety procedures everyone in the hospital uses, including masks, gloves and face shields, makes him confident with his personal safety.
“I feel more safe at the hospital and than I do at a grocery store,” he said.
When vaccines became available in December, Iesh knew that the hospital was advocating for volunteers to be vaccinated.
As it turned out, he was told he was the first, and youngest volunteer at the hospital to receive the vaccine.
He received the first shot on January 12. He had a sore arm for about 24 hours. After the second shot on January 29 he had a slight fever and didn’t feel well. He had an online speech tournament that day.
He said, the tournament “took my mind off” not feeling well. “After 24 hours I was perfectly fine.”
In addition to the Speech and Debate Club, Iesh also is on the Student Council and the Science Olympiad Club. He takes online college courses at the University of Minnesota in addition to his high school schedule, which consists mostly of advanced placement classes. He also plays soccer for the high school team.
His goal is to study medicine, but isn’t sure yet which specialty.
He has an 8-year-old brother, Aarav, who is a third grader at Eden Lake Elementary School.
Annika and three of her sisters work at Castle Ridge, an assisted living and long-term care facility that is part of Presbyterian Homes and Services. It began with oldest sister, Johanna, now a registered nurse. Sisters Lara and Kaija are now in college, but work at the nursing home during school breaks.
Annika has worked for more than a year in the dietary department as a server, taking orders in the morning, serving food and cleaning up afterward.
She received her first vaccine recently. “It was really exciting,” she said. “(My arm) was a little sore, but it was manageable.”
Annika said getting the vaccine means she is a little closer to being able to widen her circle of contacts that has been restricted by COVID-19. More importantly, she said, it helps keep the people she serves safe.
“I’ve kept my circle pretty small,” she said. “I don’t (want to) affect the patients in the nursing home or anyone else in my life. (The vaccination) adds an extra layer (of protection) for me and residents.” Many of the residents have now been vaccinated, as well, she said.
As with Iesh, Annika says the training she has received along with multiple layers of protection keeps her confident in working safely at the facility. She worked all summer, despite the pandemic.
Even so, her main concern is with the residents.
“It was kind of sad because they can’t see their families,” she said. “Most of them couldn’t go outside. We try to help lighten the mood when they can’t see family or interact with each other. I was just really happy to be of help and to help get all the work done that keeps all of them safe.”
Annika recently returned to the high school and is following a hybrid schedule of two days in school and three days at home. Her schedule includes ancient world history, chemistry and elementary mentoring.
“Normally, we would go around to elementary schools and mentor students but this year we’re not able to do that,” she said.
Annika competes in Nordic skiing and is looking forward to the state meet in early March. She also plays high school softball and plays in a dome league during the winter. She also is on the Class Council, which plans events like homecoming, which didn’t happen in the fall.
Right now, Annika wants to be a teacher. Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, is something of a family tradition and it’s at the top of the list – although she says she looking at a couple of other colleges, too.
Working at Castle Ridge also remains in her plans. “I really like working there and I’m planning on working there as long as I can,” she said.
Her youngest sister, Kari, plans to begin work at Castle Ridge as soon as she turns 16.
Iesh was in hybrid learning before the district went to all online learning in November. He has opted to stay online because it reduces travel time and allows for additional study time.
While contemplating his own path through the pandemic as a student and a now fully vaccinated hospital volunteer, Iesh acknowledges that some people are thinking twice about being vaccinated.
“I think there’s a lot of hesitation around the vaccine,” he said. “That it was made too quickly, that it’s efficacy isn’t high. Whether it actually helps young people.”
He admits he had some of the same concerns. But he did his own research and learned that the efficacy for the Pfizer vaccine is around 95 percent.
It also helped being in a health care environment and seeing professionals who were being vaccinated.
“Knowing that I wasn’t in it alone, that other people were also doing it, seeing all the physicians at the hospital doing it, boosted my confidence,” he said.
“Knowing that everyone is doing it with you and that everyone is eventually going through this and that there is no real reason to be scared of the vaccine helped me make this tough decision,” he said.