Relief and concern for parents as Singapore's student vaccination drive begins

SINGAPORE — Singapore kicked off its COVID-19 vaccination drive for students aged 12 and above on Thursday (3 June), with the aim of vaccinating over 400,000 students by August.

Parents whose children have received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or are scheduled to have their jabs soon told Yahoo News Singapore that they were glad for the protection that vaccination offers. Some, however, expressed concerns over the possible side-effects of the vaccine and swiftness of the rollout.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced on Monday that bookings for the student vaccinations would be opened on Tuesday. This came after the multi-ministry taskforce (MTF) handling the pandemic announced on 18 May that Singapore's vaccination programme would be extended to those aged 12 to 15.

Currently, students aged 12 to 17 can only be administered the Pfizer vaccine, while those aged 18 and above can choose between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Burden off their minds

For Habibah Tahar, whose 16-year-old daughter Salwa received her first dose on Thursday, the vaccination drive is a burden off both their minds.

"When they first announced the vaccinations for students, I was quite happy and relieved. I was looking forward to it. I think it will reduce the anxiety in my daughter, who is taking the national examination at the end of the year," said Habibah, a 50-year-old schoolteacher.

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore at her home in Pasir Ris, Habibah expressed concerns over her daughter possibly experiencing severe side-effects. However, she took comfort in the fact that other members of her family – including her 83-year-old mother and herself – had experienced only mild side-effects from their own jabs, all of which "resolved in a few days".

Salwa's worries going into the vaccinations centre were more immediate. "I think I was really scared of the needle. But the person managing the injection was really well trained. Sensing that I was afraid, he ensured that I didn't see the needle so as not to frighten me," said the Ngee Ann Secondary student.

The vaccination gave her a sense of reassurance that even if she were to contract COVID-19 in future, the impact on her would not be so severe, she added.

Her friends and schoolmates were "really excited" about receiving their vaccinations, according to Salwa. "Although they might be nervous, it's only because they're really afraid of the injection. Most of them are not really afraid of the vaccine itself," said Salwa.

Habibah Tahar (left) and her 16-year-old daughter Salwa Taib Ali, who received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday (3 June). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Habibah Tahar (left) and her 16-year-old daughter Salwa Taib Ali, who received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday (3 June). (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

Reassured by PM's speech

Simon Siah, a 49-year-old innovation consultant, was also pleased when he heard the news about the student vaccination drive.

"I was quite happy about it. At least you know your child will be vaccinated and protected," said Siah, who spoke to Yahoo News Singapore over the phone. His 17-year-old daughter, a junior college student who is taking her A-level examinations this year, also received her first dose on Thursday.

Siah admitted that his family was initially apprehensive about the vaccinations as they were worried about its possible effects on children. However, PM Lee's speech on Monday "assured us that we need to be part of vaccination drive", he said.

While accompanying his daughter to the vaccination centre, Siah noted that the process was smooth despite a larger-than-expected crowd with "many kids" waiting for their jabs.

He also said that there was "definitely a bit of anxiety" among other parents, judging by the messages he received after posting a picture of his daughter's vaccination on social media.

Pressure to make a decision

For She-reen Wong and Doris Tan, PM Lee's speech and the opening of vaccination slots the following day left the two mothers feeling like they had little time to make up their minds.

"I didn’t expect to have to make the decision so fast. So I spent that night reading up. I was quite hesitant at first. It didn’t seem like there has been that much time since they developed the vaccines," said Wong, a 37-year-old product executive. Her 16-year-old daughter Eloise is taking her O-level examinations this year.

Wong added that her main concern was over the possible long-term effects of the vaccine on Eloise. "What if it affects her fertility?" she asked.

However, with more research, Wong said she found reassurance in reports from overseas stating that vaccines were now being used in those aged 16 and above, and were even being tested on infants.

On Thursday, Wong registered Eloise for her first vaccine appointment on 9 June. "I’d rather have her safe now, than protect her against future risks I can’t foresee," she said.

Eloise said she was looking forward to receiving her jab. "I felt elated that they prioritised those who are taking their national exams. I am quite looking forward to it, knowing that it will at least lower my chances of getting the virus," she said.

The Saint Anthony's Canossian Secondary student said that she was a bit worried after hearing that some of her friends who were vaccinated on Thursday reported having sore arms and fatigue. Eloise was concerned if such side-effects would affect her performance at her O-level English oral examination, which will take place two days after she receives her second vaccine dose.

Tan, who shares Wong's concerns over the vaccines possible effects on teenagers, said her worries also stem from her 16-year-old son's severe peanut allergy.

"I'm very happy the vaccination scheme has been extended to 16-year-olds as they have to go back to school," she said. But she was also somewhat anxious over the lack of clear information regarding vaccine eligibility for students with allergies.

Tan said she proactively sought a general practitioner's advice on her son's eligibility to be vaccinated as his last allergy assessment was done when he was nine years old. She would book her son's vaccine appointment only once his new allergy report is complete and he is cleared to take the jab, she added.

"If my son is indeed very allergic to the mRNA vaccines, then he would have no choice but to go with other vaccines," said Tan.

While the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are the only ones currently approved for use in Singapore, the government announced on Monday that other vaccines – such as those produced by Johnson & Johnson, Sinopharm and Oxford-AstraZeneca – will be allowed for import via Special Access Routes (SARs) by private healthcare providers. These vaccines would cater to the around 30,000 individuals here who are unable to be given the mRNA vaccines due to medical reasons.

Tan noted that such vaccines will not be subsidised and those taking them will not be eligible for the Vaccine Injury Financial Assistance Programme (VIFAP) for COVID-19 vaccination – a situation she found to be somewhat unfair.

"I don’t want my son to have to take an alternative vaccine... It feels like if you're not part of the national vaccination programme, then you’re on your own," said Tan.

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