Eduardo Torres, 53, was up early in Chicago on Thursday morning when he heard the news on the television: Younger adolescents, including his 14-year-old daughter, Raquel, were now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
“I told my wife, ‘I’ve got to take her to get vaccinated — immediately,’” he said.
The world’s first mass coronavirus inoculation campaign for children kicked off in earnest in the United States on Thursday after the federal government recommended making the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available to those aged 12 to 15. Vaccinations of adolescents had already begun this week in a few states, like Maine.
By 9:30 a.m., Raquel was among the first wave of children in her age group to be vaccinated at a site near Wrigley Field and was excitedly listing the things she could do once she is fully vaccinated. Go to her high school in person again. See her friends without worrying. Return to playing volleyball and bowling.
“It’s just a beautiful thing that this is available,” Mr. Torres said.
The start of shots for younger people marks a pivotal phase of the race to vaccinate as many Americans as possible, opening up the vaccine to millions of adolescents far earlier than many experts had predicted. There are about 17 million children between the ages of 12 and 15 in the United States, representing about 5 percent of the population. The changes — which mean that people ages 12 and up are now eligible — also opened the possibility that many more children may soon return to a semblance of normalcy, attending camps this summer and returning to in-person school by fall.
“Children have suffered this disease, in many ways disproportionately, especially psychologically,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, describing the disruption to children’s routines, the loss of school and the inability to socialize with friends that has contributed to a sense of isolation and mental health emergencies among children during the pandemic.
“This is your ticket out of that problem,” he said.
Still, many parents remain hesitant to put their children on the frontline of a vaccine that they view as experimental. And unlike in previous phases of the vaccine rollout, there were few reports of crowds and long lines during the first hours of eligibility on Thursday, when many children were in school.
In New York City, Julian Boyce, 14, was among a scattering of teenagers who showed up to be vaccinated first thing Thursday morning at Harlem Hospital Center. His family has known as many as 20 people who have died of Covid-19, his father said, and Julian has spent much of the last year indoors, keeping up with school work and playing video games.
Julian, an eighth grader at The Cathedral School, asked a nurse to administer his shot in his left arm, so any soreness wouldn’t affect his writing. Then he turned his attention to his cell phone.
“I just got my vaccine,” he texted his friends.
Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated to protect their families. “Parents, let’s get our zoomers off of Zoom and back to life as normal,” he said Thursday morning.
To encourage more New Yorkers to get shots, the mayor announced that people who’ve been vaccinated can win tickets for two outdoor music festivals, the Governors Ball at Citi Field and Global Citizen Live in Central Park.
The Shake Shack restaurant chain said it would give vouchers good for a free hamburger or sandwich to people who are vaccinated at a city mobile clinic. And for the next month, it said, customers who show a vaccination cards can get a free side order of french fries.
Amanda Rosa contributed reporting.