Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix

COVID vaccine eligibility opens up for residents as young as 16 starting Monday in Florida, raising a myriad of questions about how the process will work for young people and how much autonomy minors will have over their bodies in a medical situation.

The teenage bracket for vaccine eligibility surprised the media and Floridians as a well, because of disjointed messaging last week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis originally announced March 25 that “all adults in the state age 18 and older” would be eligible for the COVID vaccine starting April 5. He presented the announcement through a prerecorded video released last Thursday.

A day later, the Florida Department of Health posted a lengthy press release at 6:31 pm. Friday, briefly mentioning that residents 18 and older could get COVID vaccines, but so would 16 and older residents, who could get the Pfizer vaccine.

There was no separate announcement or update from the governor’s office about the change.

As it stands now, kids of high school age, likely sophomores, juniors and seniors, will be able to get the COVID vaccine on Monday, leading to concerns about access to the vaccine for that age group, and larger questions about autonomy for minors.

Who gets to make a decision on whether 16- and 17-year-olds can get the vaccine: The child or their parents or guardians?

Local Florida health departments and hospitals are trying to get clarity on those concerns right now, following a rocky start for the general public, who may not have heard about the 16 and older group in the vaccine lineup.

Vaccine limitations for minors

Currently, only the Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for those 16 years or older. The other two vaccines, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, can only be administered to people aged 18 years and older.

That means minors eligible for the vaccine may have a harder time getting one, in part because not every pharmacy location offers the Pfizer vaccine and the teens will be competing for appointment windows.

The Pfizer vaccine used 16- and 17-year-olds during trials, while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson stuck with people aged 18 years and older, according to Tampa Bay news source WFTS.

Overall, it could be a tough time for 16- and 17-year-olds, assuming they even want the vaccine.

But there may be other limitations the teen group might face.

Bodily autonomy of minors

Teens 16 and 17 are minors and are still largely dependent on their parents or guardians. Even though they may be juniors or seniors in high school, in many medical situations, parent authority outweighs a minor’s preference on what happens with their bodies.

This concern came up in the 2020 legislative session, when a controversial bill passed into law dictating that a minor needs parental consent to get an abortion. The legislation prompted an ongoing question: When the child and a parent are at odds at what should happen to a minor’s body in a medical situation, who should have final say?

On the abortion front, Florida decided that the parent does. But it’s not yet clear what to do about the COVID vaccine in that regard.

Should a parent be allowed to decline a COVID vaccine for their child, even if the kid wants the vaccine?

Some states have already had to tackle this dilemma. Georgia Department of Public Health officials have to speak with a parent or guardian in order to schedule an appointment for a minor to get the vaccine, and can’t move forward without consent of the parent or guardian figure, an employee told the Phoenix.

The Utah Department of Health confirmed with the Phoenix that a parent or guardian has to be present in order for a minor to get a COVID vaccine in their state.

However, parental consent is not required for vaccines everywhere.

Back in December, Washington D.C. passed a law which allows children as young as 11 to make decisions for themselves about getting vaccinated, with or without parental consent, so long as a doctor deems the child able to comprehend the benefits and risks of getting a vaccine, according to USA TODAY.

As for Florida, it’s not fully clear if 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to get the COVID vaccine without permission from their parent.

The Florida Department of Health did not respond to Phoenix’s request for clarity on the matter.

And it’s not yet certain how local health department and hospitals will operate when teens as young as 16 will be eligible for the COVID vaccine in a few days.

It’s possible that Florida will ultimately lean on parental consent. That would mean that there could be situations throughout Florida where a willing 16-or 17-year-old — old enough to be trusted to drive alone — may not be able decide for themselves to get the COVID vaccine because their parent doesn’t want them to get it.

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