Eduardo Torres, 53, was up early in Chicago on Thursday when he heard the news on the television: younger adolescents, including his 14-year-old daughter, Raquel, were now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
It was a moment his family had been waiting for.
“I told my wife, ‘I’ve got to take her to get vaccinated, immediately,’” said Mr. Torres, who pulled his daughter out of school and hurried her to a vaccination site near Wrigley Field, where Raquel became among the first children in her age group in the country to get vaccinated.
The first mass campaign to inoculate children against the coronavirus officially began in the United States on Thursday, after the federal government recommended making the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine available to children ages 12 to 15. Teenagers 16 and older became eligible in most states last month.
From Seattle to San Antonio to New York, children in graphic T-shirts and sports jerseys shuffled into vaccination centers, skipping math classes to get vaccinated and, at times, holding a parent’s hand the moment the shot entered their arm. It was a far different scene than only a few months ago, when it was seniors over the age of 65 who descended on vaccination centers, and a marker of how far the country has come in its race to vaccinate the majority of the American population.
About 17 million children between the ages of 12 and 15 — or about 5 percent of the United States population — are newly eligible for the vaccine, the biggest indication yet that life could soon return to something more like normal for American teenagers.
“I want a sleepover,” Kira Barth, 14, said after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Nashville on Thursday. Her twin sister, Nola, was dreaming of a trip to Target. “I want to be able to go to places again,” she said.
Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that vaccines represented a significant milestone after months of disruption for American teenagers, when the loss of in-person classes and the inability to socialize with friends contributed to a sense of isolation and mental health emergencies among children during the pandemic.
“Children have suffered this disease, in many ways disproportionately, especially psychologically,” he said. “This is your ticket out of that problem.”
Still, many parents remain wary of putting their children on the front line of a vaccine that they view as experimental, and a lack of demand could prove a barrier to widespread vaccination among teenagers. Unlike in previous phases of the vaccine rollout, there were few reports of crowds, long lines or major technical glitches on Thursday.
According to Kaiser Family Foundation research published this month, nearly a quarter of parents with a child between the ages of 12 to 15 said they definitely did not plan to get their child vaccinated, and another quarter planned to wait and see how the vaccine was working. About three in 10 parents with children in this age group planned to vaccinate their children as soon as possible.
“I’ve heard parents say things from, ‘You’re not injecting poison into my child,’ to, ‘My child is healthy enough, if they get Covid-19, they will be fine,’” said Kenyetta Burr, the supervisor of nursing for public schools in Youngstown, Ohio, where officials sent out emails, informational fliers and social media posts to vaccinate students ages 16 and up, the first group of children who were eligible for the vaccine.
But of 360 doses allocated to the school district, she said, nurses have administered just three. She said there had not yet been a new surge of interest from the younger age group.
Parents deciding whether to vaccinate their children must weigh a number of factors at a time when coronavirus cases nationally have declined to their lowest levels since September, but children make up a growing portion of infections.
Children are far less likely than adults to be hospitalized with the coronavirus and are extremely unlikely to die from Covid-19. There have been at least 306 confirmed child deaths from Covid-19 in the United States, out of an estimated 3.8 million known cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Still, children can grow seriously sick from the virus and can also help spread the virus to more vulnerable people. Children ages 12 to 17 are testing positive for the coronavirus at the highest rate of any age group, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doctors are also growing increasingly concerned about a mysterious inflammatory syndrome emerging in children and teenagers. The condition, called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), typically appears two to five weeks after a coronavirus infection, often one that produced only mild symptoms or none at all. The syndrome is rare, but can be serious, requiring hospitalization, including intensive care treatment.
For some families, there was no time to wait.
Julian Boyce, 14, was among the first vaccinated at Harlem Hospital Center in New York City on Thursday. His family said they had known some 20 people who have died of Covid-19 throughout the pandemic — two people in their apartment building, the doorman at the building next door, members of their church, parents from Little League.
So when Julian’s age group became eligible, his parents quickly brought him to the hospital, where his father is an administrator. 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 cellphone.
“I just got my vaccine,” he texted his friends.
Officials in 49 states confirmed on Thursday that they had begun offering the vaccine to people ages 12 and older. State officials in Montana did not provide information, but county officials in parts of the state said they were offering shots to children in that age group.
For many teenagers, the chance to reconnect with friends and get back to a typical summer was a key reason to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“I was like, ‘Do it,’” said Calysta Magne-Gordon, 13, snapping her fingers at a vaccination site in Nashville. “I don’t care how early I have to wake up in the morning, I need to get that vaccine.”
Calysta, who spent her eighth grade in an online classroom, disconnected from friends, is now looking forward to attending an overnight art and music camp in Michigan. On her more immediate list of activities: the simple pleasure of ordering waffles from a favorite restaurant that had been off limits to her until she was protected from the virus.
Her father, Cyrille Magne, said he and his wife had been researching the information available about the vaccines, and had also enrolled their 8-year-old daughter in a clinical trial. “I understand when people say, ‘We don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine,’ but we do know the long-term effect of death,” he said, referring to the risk of death from Covid-19. “It’s evaluating the benefits and the risks.”
For those who are nervous about vaccination, the news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted mask requirements in most cases for vaccinated Americans could prove an incentive.
Leon Weber, 12, who got a vaccine in Seattle on Thursday, said he was looking forward to getting closer to normalcy, including life without as much mask wearing. Wearing a mask while hiking, playing baseball and doing other physical activity, he said, “feels like a wall in front of your face.”
In San Antonio, there was enough interest that at least 40 teenagers received their shot at a mall on Wednesday night as soon as the new guidelines were announced by federal officials, and demand was expected to pick up even more after school hours on Thursday.
“My phone has been going off every five minutes, asking me, are you all vaccinating?” said Bill Phillips, a hospital administrator with the University Health System, which is running the mall clinic. “The answer is yes, yes, yes, come on over.”
San Antonio is more than 60 percent Latino, a population that has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and some families described a sense of urgency to get vaccinated.
Abner Navarrete, 47, and his wife, Giselle Abrego, 45, were there with their daughter, who because of the pandemic did not get a lavish quinceañera, a traditional coming-of-age party for Latinas, when she turned 15 in December.
“She wanted a party and trip with friends,” Ms. Abrego said. “But this year keeping her health is her present.”
Romina, their daughter, smiled behind her mask. “Instead of celebrating,” she said, “I’m staying alive.”
Reporting was contributed by Mike Baker from Seattle, Julie Bosman from Chicago, Joseph Goldstein from New York, Danielle Ivory from Paramus, N.J., Jamie McGee from Nashville and Edgar Sandoval from San Antonio. Research was contributed by Lauryn Higgins, John Yoon, Laney Pope, Cierra S. Queen and Alex Lemonides.