Lillian VanderVennen sat in her car seat, pigtail braids framing her smiling face, and explained why she wanted to get a shot in her arm.

“So I don’t get COVID,” said Lillian, a 5-year-old preschooler from Ada, Michigan.

She is just one of 600 children to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at Spectrum Health’s drive-up site at 1300 Michigan St. NE in the first two weeks.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the vaccine for children 5 and older, a steady stream of parents and children have arrived, eager to get a vaccination.

Well, eager might be overstating it for some kids.

Even Lillian’s smile turned to a pout as the moment approached for her shot.

She curled up on her mom’s lap as respiratory therapist Laure Panici reached through the open car door to deliver the injection to her arm.

“Think about ice cream right now,” said her mom, Marielle VanderVennen, MD.

In a second, it was over.

“Big girl, Lillian!” Panici said. “That was awesome.”

Holding her post-shot sucker, Lillian smiled once again. And she had advice for other kids about to get a vaccine: “It’s scary, but you have to be brave.”

Her mom, a pediatric hospitalist for Spectrum Health Lakeland, said she was pleased to get the shot for Lillian—to protect her and their loved ones from the COVID-19 virus.

“We feel so blessed,” she said. “I feel joyful and relieved.”

Smaller dose for smaller kids

There are many reasons for children to get the COVID-19 vaccine, said Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

Although the majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are adults, the virus does pose risks to children.

“It’s very important for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19—even if they have no underlying medical condition,” Dr. Olivero said. “Healthy, normal children can still get very sick from COVID-19.”

Between 1% and 5% become so ill they require hospitalization.

Some children who get COVID-19 develop a serious, life-threatening complication called multi-system inflammatory condition.

“Also, a growing proportion of children have been showing symptoms of long COVID—which are chronic symptoms that can be experienced after having acute respiratory COVID-19,” she said.

Vaccinating children is also important in limiting the spread of the virus, she added.

“Children make up 25% of the United States population,” she said. “To achieve adequate immunity in the United States, and to prevent further waves of variants of concern, vaccinating children will indeed be incredibly important.”

The FDA authorized a two-dose regimen of the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

Each shot contains one-third of the dose given to adults and older children. According to research on the vaccine, that dose provided an effective immune response for children while minimizing side effects, Dr. Olivero said.

No big deal

For 8-year-old James Tiberius Weber, getting the vaccine was a way to help himself and others.

He wanted the COVID-19 vaccine because it meant there would be “less of a chance of giving (the virus) to my family and less of a chance of getting it myself.”

Sitting in the back seat of his family minivan, wearing his blue school uniform and a yellow SpongeBob face mask, James said he had mixed feelings about getting a shot.

“Happy—but I am also nervous,” said James, a third-grader at North Park Montessori school.

As Panici leaned in to deliver the injection to his arm, James shut his eyes tight.

Afterward, he said, “It wasn’t that bad. Honestly, it just tickled.”

His mom, Jessica Weber, said she scheduled an appointment for James’ vaccine as soon as the vaccines became available.

“We don’t want to catch this,” she said. “We know how dangerous it is.”

Grateful parents

Most kids handle the shots without much fuss, said Carrissa Stalsonburg, RN, the charge nurse at the outdoor site. They appreciate the post-shot treat of a sucker or sticker.

“We try to make it a positive experience for them,” she said. “When we have a kiddo who is scared, we make a big deal afterward: ‘You did such a great job. I am so proud of you. Your muscles are so strong.’”

Parents expressed gratitude and relief the vaccines are available for their children. And they help to calm their kids, holding the younger ones on their laps as they receive their shots.

“It’s just a tiny little poke,” Stalsonburg said. “Afterwards, they say I was nervous for no reason—90% of the time, that’s the case.”