By Katy Savage
After much anticipation, the state rolled out Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11 on Monday, Nov. 8.
More than 200 students traveled from around the state to attend one of the first clinics at Riverside Middle School in Springfield that Monday.
Most of the children and parents who attended said they were looking forward to the freedoms that came with being vaccinated, like being able to spend more time with their friends and going out to eat without wearing a mask.
Harris Bushell, 11, of Norwich, said he got the vaccine because “there were more opportunities,” for him once he was vaccinated.
“We’ll be able to worry a little less about social gatherings,” Bushell’s father Robert added.
Beth Roy, a member of the Hartland School Board, took her two kids out of school early to get vaccinated.
Roy’s daughter, Samara Collier, 11, wanted to see her friends outside of school and wanted to see her extended family for Thanksgiving.
“I can go have playdates with my friends and finally be one step closer to taking my mask off at school,” she said.
Roy said the vaccines gave her more peace of mind and more convenience to not get a Covid test for “every sniffly nose.”
“For me, it’s more the right community thing to be doing,” she said.
Registration for the clinics opened on Wednesday, Nov. 3, just after the youth vaccine was approved for children by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The state was expected to receive a total of 23,400 doses for children the first week of vaccination.
“Vaccinating Vermont’s youth will have a significant impact on our efforts to move past this pandemic, and we need parents to take advantage of this safe, free and effective way to protect their children,” Gov. Phil Scott said in a statement.
Like the vaccine for adults, children will receive two doses, three weeks apart. The doses for 5-11-year-olds are one-third the size of the dose for people 12 and older. After Monday’s rollout, vaccines were expected to be available at 100 schools across the state over the next six-weeks. Vaccines are also available at pharmacies and some doctor’s offices.
Springfield was one of the first towns in the state to have vaccines for youth. Rutland and Montpelier also held clinics on Monday. All slots for the vaccine clinic in Springfield filled up within the first day.
Despite the success, it wasn’t what Springfield Superintendent Zach McLaughlin hoped for.
He said the clinic, which was supposed to be open to Springfield students only, was changed to allow any student in the state, as well as some New Hampshire residents, to attend. “We’re pretty upset about today in all honesty,” McLaughlin said on Monday.
McLaughlin said he had worked with the district’s Covid vaccine coordinator for the past month to make sure Springfield would be one of the first to have youth vaccines.
“We had worked to be that kid to turn in the homework first,” McLaughlin said. McLaughlin said he received no notice from the Vermont Agency of Education or the Vermont Dept. of Health that the clinics were going to be open to any student in the state.
“It’s hard to not feel like this is an equity issue,” McLaughlin said. “Springfield is a community where we have families that struggle. We know that there’s some folks in our community who are going to have a hard time getting to clinics outside our community.”
Earlier this year, McLaughlin shut down the entire district when about a quarter of the 1,300 kids were forced to quarantine after at least a dozen tested positive for Covid. McLaughlin said he was expecting to have enough vaccines on Monday to cover all students ages 5-11 in the district — about 280 in total.
But, McLaughlin said, only about 10% of Springfield students were able to get time slots on Monday. McLaughlin was unsure how many parents in their district wanted their children to be vaccinated. He said about 60% of students currently eligible have been vaccinated. Many schools in the state have at least 80% of students vaccinated.
“This was going to be a litmus test for us,” McLaughlin said.
Ted Fisher, the director of communications at the Agency of Education, admitted “some things got lost in translation” in administering the Covid-19 vaccine to youth last week.
“There was a change — sort of a miscommunication between the district office and the school district,” he said. “We’re aware of some of those issues.” Fisher said the agency was in communication with superintendents throughout the planning process.
Fisher said schools that had a high volume of students on free or reduced lunch were targeted to receive the first doses of the youth vaccines. The agency opened up the clinics to all students to meet demand across the state.
“We have too much demand and not enough doses,” Fisher said. He said some communities didn’t have enough people sign up. Fisher admitted the rollout of the first Covid-19 vaccines for children wasn’t as smooth as intended and pointed to problems in Burlington and Winooski, where there was an IT issue with the registration portal. Some students were not able to get registered as a result.
“We’re working to solve that problem as well,” Fisher said.
While many of the students who attended the clinic in Springfield Monday were from out of town, Lester Peck, a Springfield resident and the director of pharmacy at Springfield Hospital, was able to get appointments for his daughter Adelaid and son Weston in the afternoon. While Peck said he wanted to protect his family and others, his kids had their own reasons for getting the vaccine.
“I didn’t want my friends to get sick,” Adelaid, 7, said. “I don’t have to wear my mask all the time,” said Weston, 10. Peck has direct experience with Covid.
Last year, he was part of the Army Reserve’s Covid-19 response team and was deployed to New York City to work in Manhattan and Queens. Peck worked with other pharmacists to compound IV medications.
Peck acknowledged the controversy surrounding the vaccines.
“I think we’d all like to see that it had been tested for a longer period of time,” he said, but he wasn’t concerned about potential side effects.
“To date they’ve proved to be relatively effective and safe, so we’ve got to believe in the science and keep moving forward so we can try and find a new normal.”
The CDC still recommends children ages 2-4 years old and unvaccinated adults or children continue to wear a mask in public spaces and around people outside their homes.