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As More Teens Become Eligible For Coronavirus Vaccine, School-Based Clinics Help Spread Immunity

Student Katherine Halle gets her first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Student Katherine Halle gets her first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School

School-based COVID-19 vaccination clinics are underway this week in Maine, just as eligibility is opening up to 12 to 15-year-olds.

These clinics mark a shift in strategy away from mass vaccination sites toward pop-up clinics focused on certain populations.

And for school-age students, there's a tight window to get them both doses of the vaccine before school lets out for summer.

MaineHealth hosted its first school-based COVID-19 vaccination clinics Tuesday at high schools in Poland and in Norway, where Katherine Hallee is a junior at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. The 17-year old was the first student at the clinic to get the shot.

This clinic is quiet — it doesn't have the same hustle and bustle as the larger sites.

But don't mistake the lack of noise for lack of enthusiasm. Hallee says she is thrilled to be one step closer to shedding her mask, and to returning to school full time.

"Next year will be my senior year, so hopefully that will bring some sense of more normalcy in the school year. Hopefully five days back in school. Homecoming, Winter Carnival, that would be great. Sports events, hopefully," she says.

Hallee has been eligible for the vaccine for over a month, but getting to a clinic hasn't been easy. She first tried to get an appointment at a clinic in the Westbrook area, but couldn't make the drive there.

"So it was very convenient to have it here, and it seems like quite a few people are taking advantage of it, so that's a good thing," she says.

Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School sits in a rural county where case rates of COVID-19 are among the highest in the state and vaccination rates are among the lowest.

As of Tuesday, 48 percent of the eligible population in Oxford County had received a first dose. That's ten points lower than the statewide rate of 58 percent.

School Principal Ted Moccia says it was important to set up a clinic directly in school because some students and families don't have the time or the transportation to make it to other clinics.

"Anything we can do to level the playing field, I'm all about that. It's really important that we give everyone this opportunity," he says.

About 26 students signed up for the clinic. It's a small slice of the students 16 and up in the school, but Karen Gurney of Western Maine Health, who is running the clinic, says many students have already been vaccinated.

The goal of the clinic is to capture those who would miss out otherwise, and not just due to issues of inconvenience.

"We've actually had some students whose parents were not interested in them being vaccinated, but they were adults, they were 18, so they chose to be vaccinated, which we thought was very interesting," Gurney says.

With 12 to 15-year-olds now eligible to get the vaccine, Gurney says Western Maine Health will add that age group to upcoming clinics this week and next.

And its parent organization, MaineHealth, is reaching out to school districts across its system to set up clinics in middle and high schools. But time is of the essence. There are just a few weeks left of school and kids can only get the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two doses three weeks apart.

"That's why we're working so hard to nail down the times, because for Poland and Oxford Hills, we needed to be sure that the dates we were setting up, there would be an opportunity to get their second dose, within 21 days, before school closed," Gurney says.

Efforts to bring the vaccine to schools are also underway in other parts of the state.

Penobscot Community Health Care, which serves Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Waldo Counties, is holding multiple school clinics this week. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Noah Nesin says time isn't the only challenge. They're working with Northern Light Health to prevent wasting the Pfizer vaccine, which must be thawed from ultra-cold storage.

"They're willing to help supply us with vaccine if we underestimate the amount that we need or to take excess vaccine if we overestimate. If we over-order, and can't use up vaccine, we can transfer to Northern Light Health for their use so that we can hopefully minimize wastage of the vaccines," Nesin says.

Nesin says Penobscot Community Health Care is also devising strategies to reach adolescents and teens once summer starts. Just like the school-based clinics, he thinks bringing the vaccine to where kids are in the community, through things like drive-through clinics, will be crucial.

Dr. James Jarvis, who helps lead the coronavirus response at Northern Light Health, also said that the next few weeks are a critical time to get teenagers vaccinated.

He said that clinical trials have proven the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer shots in teens between the ages of 12 and 15, and that giving them the shots will also protect any vulnerable people who live in their homes from catching COVID-19.

“They have spent a year where they have had on and off again school because of outbreaks in our communities," Jarvis said of teens.

"We don’t want that to happen again. We want them to start in the fall knowing that they will attend classes in person for the entire year. The only way that can happen is enough of them are vaccinated that we don’t see these outbreaks amongst them and their friends and their families."