400 school districts host vaccinations

On Board Online • November 29, 2021

By Pauline Liu
Special Correspondent

Ethan Walla, 11, received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Pediatric COVID-19 vaccine at Amherst High School in Erie County in mid-November. "I would rather get the shot than run a high fever," the sixth grader said, recalling that one of his classmates got COVID-19 at the start of the school year and had to be quarantined.

A total of 325 Amherst students and their families turned out for a one-day clinic hosted by the school district in partnership with Rite Aid Pharmacy. Children between the ages of five and 11 became eligible to receive a dose of the Pfizer vaccine following action by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 2.

According to Gov. Kathy Hochul, nearly 400 school districts in New York have scheduled vaccine events for eligible children. Also, 10 state-run mass vaccination sites are administering pediatric vaccines along with efforts by hospitals, county health departments and doctors' offices.

With 1.5 million children in the age group statewide, medical experts believe the new children's vaccine could become a game changer in the battle against the coronavirus - provided enough parents are willing to have their kids vaccinated.

About three-quarters of parents are leery of the vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A survey taken just prior to the pediatric vaccine's approval found that only 27% of parents said they would vaccinate their children against the virus as soon as a vaccine became available. About a third of the parents surveyed said they'd wait and a little less than a third said definitely not. Another 5% said they would get their children vaccinated if mandated to do so (something Gov. Hochul has not ruled out).

Since the release of the survey, Pfizer has presented additional data to show that the vaccine is safe and about 91% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 for children ages five to 11.

Amherst was among the first school districts to schedule a clinic. It sent out "save the date" notices to families more than 10 days before the vaccine received CDC approval.

"By being anticipatory and planning early, we have time to test and revise before implementation," Amherst Superintendent Anthony Panella said.

Amherst children are being asked to return for a second vaccination clinic scheduled for Dec. 4. It means they've received their first vaccine dose before Thanksgiving and can be fully vaccinated before the Christmas break, just in time for holiday gatherings.

The November clinic was hailed as a success by parents, including Ethan's mother, Elizabeth Walla. "I'm relieved," she said. "It's just about peace of mind, and I'm very grateful to the school for setting this up. I can't imagine what it took to organize it."

One advantage of school clinics is that children are confronting needles in familiar settings surrounded by students and staff they know.

The Erie County Department of Health has hosted free clinics in urban, suburban and rural locations. As of mid-November, 7,315 children of 71,000 eligible children in the county had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein believes it's crucial to get this age group vaccinated because they can be carriers of infection without knowing it. "We know that many times younger children are asymptomatic but they still have viral loads, and they can still transmit infection," Dr. Burstein said.

Hospitals are also stepping up. On Long Island, Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital is sending a large van called the Vaxmobile, equipped with pediatric vaccines, to parking lots in Baldwin, Freeport and Island Park school districts. In Buffalo, John R. Oishei Children's Hospital hosted a free clinic on a recent Saturday.

Former West Seneca school board member Lauren Nicholas brought three of her children (ages six, seven and 10) to get vaccinated at the hospital. All were eager, she said.

"They very much understand that vaccination is the way to get the world back to normal," Nicholas explained. "My 10-year-old got a little nervous, but she sat on my lap and never cried. It was over in seconds."

Jessica Schuster, a school board member for the Springville-Griffith Institute Central School District, also brought her three children to the clinic.

Her 10-year-old son, Henry, has an autoimmune condition and contracted a mild case of COVID-19 over the summer. She was grateful that he was able to get vaccinated. "I think he will be safer," Schuster said. "The big thing is we can have a normal Christmas. I'm really happy about that."

Other families feel comfortable getting their children vaccinated in doctor's offices. Dr. Danielle Wales, an attending physician at Albany Medical Center, said it's been busy. "By 9 a.m. on the first day it became available, we received 20 phone calls about the vaccine within an hour," she said.

Wales, who has a master's degree in public health, noted that the clinical trials for Pfizer involved even more children enrolled than originally planned. "The results look very safe and very effective, so we're very excited about it," she said.

Wales' own children are seven months old and four years old and therefore not eligible for the vaccine. But Pfizer is currently running clinical trials for infants and toddlers with hopes of having the vaccines ready by next year.

"We want to get this pandemic behind us, and the only way to get there is to get everyone vaccinated," Wales said.

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