Medical Examiner

Meet the Young Adults Sneaking Behind Their Parents’ Backs to Get Vaccinated

What do you do when you live at home, and your family thinks getting a COVID-19 shot could kill you?

Two young people in masks show off bandages on their upper arms.
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When she went to get her first dose of the vaccine, Ariel told her parents she was just going to get groceries.

Her parents, whom she’s living with in California while she’s home from college, believe that COVID-19 vaccines are a way for the government to control the population by reducing fertility. So Ariel decided to get the shot in secret. (I’ve changed the names of several people I spoke to for this piece to protect their medical choices).

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“I almost was caught,” she recalled. “Getting the shot took quite some time and adding on the time to groceries made my trip seem extremely long.”

While Ariel was more careful in scheduling her second dose, making up an excuse that she would be getting gas and adding air to the tires, the side effects she experienced afterward presented a challenge.

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“I first felt nauseous, then I got a fever, followed by fatigue and the next day around 3 a.m. severe chills. These were the worst chills I ever felt. I could not get warm and believed I would need to go to the hospital soon,” Ariel said (chills are a common side effect after vaccination, and hospitalization for any side effects is rare). “I had to pretend the rest of the day by sticking to my usual routine, which was completely awful.”

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Ariel is among one of the least-vaccinated groups in the country: people in their 20s. There are many reasons young adults may not be getting vaccinated against COVID-19—but among the road blocks is living with parents who believe in conspiracy theories surrounding the shot, like the belief that it causes you to shed viral particles, contains a microchip, alters your DNA, or otherwise harms you. More young adults have been living with their parents than at any other time in recent history, and some of them have reported having to outright lie about getting the vaccine. Others have delayed getting the shot, or have held off entirely because of the damage they fear it would do their parental relationships.

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For Jordan, age 24 in Montréal, Quebec, it was his parents’ belief in QAnon and the fact that he’d already had COVID that made him hesitant to get vaccinated. While trying to make up his mind, he found a Reddit forum, r/qanoncasualites, dedicated to helping people who had family members who subscribe to QAnon theories. “It was very good for me to see the vaccine reasoning from other QAnon casualties. I saw the courage some people had to defy their family or significant other and to do their duty,” he said. One reason why Jordan did not want to take the vaccine is because he did not want to engage in that discussion with his parents or lie to them. “I felt like I had some support.” Jordan ended up getting the vaccine and telling his parents. They cried when they found out, but they are still in touch.

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I found many stories on r/qanoncasualites that were like Jordan’s (Ariel’s parents do not believe in QAnon, but their concerns echo those that do). According to a moderator of the subreddit, Jitarth Jadeja, there have been more and more posts on the forum from people seeking support about what to do with family members who refuse to get vaccinated. Some of the posts are from people looking to calm their own fears, stoked by family members who believe in the conspiracy. “A few months ago we would get perhaps a few posts specifically with the word vaccine in the title per week. Then we started getting a dozen a week. Then two dozen. Then three dozen. In the last week, we got 50,” said Jadeja.

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In some cases, adult children are worried about being shamed or bullied if a parent discovers their vaccination status. Robin is 27 and lives with her parents in Illinois. She and her brother got their shots, and so has her dad. ­But her mother is an avid watcher of Tucker Carlson and believes in the power of hydroxychloroquine. “My mom was and still is mad at my dad for getting the vaccine and calls him a sheep, so I don’t feel like telling her,” said Robin. “She still thinks he’ll get the side effects any day now even though it’s already been two to three months. My brother also doesn’t want any drama.” Both have kept their vaccination status a secret.

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Samuel, age 21, lives in Toronto. His parents believe that the vaccine was “manufactured by the deep state” and that “when 5G gets turned on, it will kill everyone.” When he mentioned that he might be getting vaccinated to his mother in confidence, she mentioned that to his father. “He then confronted me in my room asking if I was OK with taking this ‘experimental drug’ and proceeding to berate the science and hard work behind it,” he said. His parents don’t know he has received one dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

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For others, the stakes feel higher than name calling. Eli, 28, from Florida, brought up the prospect of being vaccinated before with her parent, and it wasn’t taken well. “When they found out I was even thinking about getting it, they cried and legitimately thought I’d be dead in three years,” said Eli. She discreetly got the vaccine anyway. She experienced side effects—and, since she’d had COVID previously, she told her parent she was just having long COVID symptoms. “If they did somehow find my vaccine card, they’d most likely either kick me out or shun me in some way.”

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How do you make your parents OK with the vaccine—or at least, have it make sense to them that you’re getting vaccinated? In Northern Italy, Anna, age 27, is desperate to get a vaccine but hasn’t had the chance to because she moved back with her parents last summer. While they aren’t QAnon followers, they’ve been egged on by false information spread through WhatsApp and Telegram and believe that the vaccine will kill them. Italy, however, like other European countries is considering introducing a vaccine passport system. “I am hoping I can use this to my advantage and convince my family that I cannot wait any longer,” said Anna. “I am hoping I can blame the government, say that I am being ‘forced’ to get vaccinated, and that way they might see me as a victim rather than someone who is going against their wishes.”

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Of course, this strategy might not work in the U.S., where vaccine passports are banned in some states. And the divide in families around vaccinations might only be getting deeper. Mike Rothschild is a journalist and an author of the book on the QAnon conspiracy theory titled The Storm Is Upon Us. He says adherents to the theory didn’t really pay attention to vaccinations until the pandemic hit. “They latched on to the vaccine as a target partially due to their general distrust of ‘Big Pharma,’ but more so because of who was involved in it: Bill Gates and George Soros,” explained Rothschild. But, says Rothschild, there is tremendous overlap between anti-vaccination movements and QAnon. He points out that many in the movement are also now against flu and MMR vaccines.

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This type of overlap is concerning because it has the potential to make people more anti-vaccination in general and expose them to further conspiracy theories, like QAnon. Ariel and Anna’s family, for instance, are not against all vaccines—just the COVID vaccine. Jordan’s parents, who adhere to the QAnon theory, are now firmly anti-vaccine. “My dad got the zona [shingles] vaccine a year or two ago,” said Jordan. He says that if his dad were offered that vaccine today, “he would not take it.”

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When it comes to dealing with family who are down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, Rothschild suggests that in order to get them out, they have to see you as someone who isn’t going to debunk or argue with them. Someone who can provide a safe space. “It can’t be done through just sending people articles or calling them stupid,” he said.

Which is to say: It’s really difficult to get a parent who believes the vaccine might kill you to think otherwise. It’s a reality that Jadeja, who runs the forum where family members of  QAnon followers come to get support, knows all too well. “It’s the saddest place on or off the internet,” he said. “And we grow by hundreds of people every day.”

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