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School Nurses And Classmates Are Persuading Maine Teens To Get The Coronavirus Shot

teen vaccines 2.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Jireh Nyarushatsi, at left, and Dan Ninziza are seniors at Casco Bay High School in Portland who recently got coronavirus vaccines.

As Maine races to get people vaccinated against COVID-19, getting shots into teens and young adults is critical. Cases of the disease are largely being driven by younger people and cumulatively, those under the age of 20 account for the second highest share of cases in the state.

But there are positive signs in some places, including Casco Bay High School in Portland. About 75 percent of the senior class has gotten at least one dose of the vaccine. And on Tuesday, 14 more lined up to get the shot at the Portland Expo — even some who were initially reluctant.

One student who didn't need convincing is Doaa Abdullah. She's 18 and a senior at Casco Bay High. She says she's getting the COVID-19 vaccine because she doesn't want to get sick — or put others at greater risk.

"I want the pandemic to stop. And I think everyone should get the vaccine so we can stop the pandemic and be more safe," she says.

Abdullah encourages her classmates to get the vaccine. But not everyone wants it. Some are worried about side effects, including a friend she recently tried to convince.

"I was telling her like, 'You don't want to get corona, right? I think you should just go down and get the vaccine.' She's like, 'Well, I'm nervous.' And I'm like, 'You don't have to. I'm getting it. So you're going to see what happens to me after I get it. Nothing!'," she recalls.

Fellow senior Jireh Nyarushatsi says he heard stories about side effects from the vaccine that made him hesitant. He's not sure they were true, but they were enough to make him think twice, even though family members had already been vaccinated.

"I mean, they told me to get vaccinated too. But I was skeptical at first. So, I was like, 'Oh, I'll do it later,' just to avoid the conversation. But now, I'm ready," he says.

Nyarushatsi came to the Expo with his friend, senior Dan Ninziza, who was also initially reluctant. What ultimately swayed them, says Ninziza, was talking to their school nurse, Becky Bell.

"She told us the importance of us having the vaccines, how it can affect other people in our communities. Because us being young people, it's not really going to affect us as much," he says.

Having one-on-one conversations with students has been one of the most effective ways to encourage students to get the vaccine, says Bell. But recently, she noticed another factor at play.

teen vaccines.jpg
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Casco Bay High School nurse Becky Bell and junior Devyn Shaughnessy

"I think what turned the corner last week seemed to be peer pressure when they heard that their peers were getting vaccinated," she says.

Some of their peers also have visible roles at vaccine clinics. Casco Bay junior Devyn Shaughnessy volunteers as much as four times a week at the Portland Expo.

"I initially decided to volunteer here because I'm really, really interested in health care and epidemiology. But as soon as I did it, I realized this place — you will never be in a place with more happy people," Shaughnessy says.

Shaughnessy got her first dose three weeks ago and was due to get her second on Tuesday. The medical director of the Portland Expo clinic, nurse Alicia Paquette of Northern Light Health, says Shaughnessy and other young volunteers help recruit others to get vaccinated, both actively and by example.

"We also have a good group of Cheverus kids here this week, so it really makes the environment welcoming to the younger generation that we're trying to get here to get the vaccine," Paquette says.

Paquette says she also thinks easy access, like walk-in appointments, has helped reach younger age groups.

"The first day we did walk-ins, we had a 2:00 rush of the Portland High kids coming in. And we did about 300 over three days last week, just of walk-ins, and they were mostly school-age kids," she says.

There could soon be more demand among school-age kids. The FDA is expected to authorize the Pfizer vaccine to 12-to-15-year-olds by next week.