At least 50 White Plains High School students received their first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday morning inside their own school library during Westchester County’s first school-based vaccine pop-up clinic.
White Plains joined Albertus Magnus High School in Rockland County and Poughkeepsie High School on the region’s list of high schools offering the vaccine directly to their students as New York turns its focus in the vaccination push toward the 16-25 age group.
White Plains Superintendent Joseph Ricca said he had been interested in providing a school clinic, especially as vaccine supply increased, and White Plains Hospital agreed last week to help make it happen. They coordinated with the state Department of Health, but most of the effort took place on the community level.
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Organizers planned to offer the shot to 12th grade students only, but not as many pre-registrations came in as expected, said White Plains High School principal Emerly Martinez. So they opened the clinic to all students ages 16 and older and district staff.
“Even if it’s just 45, 50 of them, it’s worth it,” Martinez said. “If we’re able to provide the students an opportunity to visit family, to work a job this summer, to safely attend college, to me, it’s worth it for a school to provide that.”
Kimberly Hernandez, a senior, said she was getting the vaccine so she can safely visit her grandmother in Georgia for the first time since the pandemic began. She would have needed it eventually, anyway, to attend Manhattanville College in the fall.
“I was going to try to get it in the Westchester County Center or at CVS, but I know that most of the places are booked,” Hernandez said. “So the fact that my school is offering it, it’s giving me the opportunity to get it done quicker.”
Mel Telesmanic, also a senior, works directly with people as a lifeguard and wanted to get the vaccine to “protect myself and protect others.” She was planning to get inoculated, but she works a lot of hours and finding time proved difficult until the option to get the shot at school arose.
Telesmanic and Hernandez are both 17, so they came with permission forms signed by their parents. The Pfizer vaccine is the only one currently approved for ages 16-17, and the federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to modify the vaccine’s emergency use authorization for ages 12-15 as early as this week.
The vaccinations are strictly voluntary and will remain so unless the state Legislature adds COVID-19 to its list of mandatory vaccinations for students.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on April 29 that since vaccine distribution in New York has slowed from a peak of 175,000 doses administered daily to about 115,000, the state is turning its attention to “the doubtful and the youthful.”
Only about 34% of adolescents and young adults in New York are vaccinated, Cuomo said, compared to more than 70% of people over age 65. Young people have not only been eligible for less time, but they may be less interested in getting vaccinated because COVID-19 hasn’t been as dangerous for them.
“Maybe it’s not going to affect you, but you don’t live in a world alone,” Cuomo said.
Brien Schweizer, a teacher at Rochambeau Alternative High School in White Plains, got his first dose at the White Plains clinic. As a teacher, he’s been eligible for some time, but Schweizer, who is 28, said he didn’t want to “cut in front” of more vulnerable people while vaccine supplies ran low.
“Once I saw that everything was plateauing with the vaccines, I was like, ‘Alright, now is my chance,’ ” Schweizer said. “Getting it [at White Plains High School] was super convenient, so I took the opportunity.”
White Plains is Westchester’s first high school to offer vaccines. But the county is launching a campaign to encourage young people to get the vaccine, which includes a PSA with New York Knicks Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley and a youth town hall to be held on May 13.
In Rockland County, the county Health Department and Rockland BOCES are working on offering vaccination clinics in local schools, Rockland Health Commissioner Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert said.
Rockland and Westchester have ordered an extra 1,175 doses of Pfizer to share, Ruppert said, which provides more opportunity and flexibility for vaccinating teens. Health departments have the special storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine. Once Pfizer is approved for children ages 12 and older, health departments could redistribute doses to pediatric groups, which might not have the super-cold storage capacity themselves.
Ruppert said school and pediatrician partnerships help offset vaccine hesitancy. People trust their providers and feel comfortable getting a shot from them, she said.
Vaccinating young people is important, “especially with proms and graduation and other spring events,” Ruppert said. “This is an important time to get as much as we can into arms.”
Staff writer Nancy Cutler contributed to this report.
Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.