Officials in Springfield, Massachusetts — alarmed by the city's low COVID-19 vaccination rate, especially among young people — are focusing outreach on public high schools and middle schools.
On Wednesday, Central High School was the first stop in a campaign called “Vax the Field.”
As music played in the gym, a slow trickle of high schoolers — all with parental consent — got shots. A photo booth was set up for celebratory pictures.
At a press conference, some students involved in the campaign begged their classmates to get over their vaccine hesitation – mostly, they said, so they can all get back to normal.
“We need a pep rally. We need our spectators at our games. I want my mom to be [at] the games,” said junior Araiza Acum-Santos, who is on the volleyball team. “I feel it's really, really necessary that we all feel safe when you're in games or practice, not having to use our mask when we're in practice.”
Although most of Acum-Santos’ friends and family are vaccinated, she said she knows several classmates who still refuse the vaccine.
“If I'm being honest, most of them ... because of their parents,” she said. “The parents are quite scared about it, and they feel like their kid could be in danger. Or just maybe the kid itself doesn't want to do it.”
Like many classmates, Olivia Romito said she was nervous before her first COVID shot.
“I don't like getting shots in general, I'm scared of needles, so I was just very anxious about it,” she said. “But it's not that bad. Suck it up. You're going to have to do stuff you don't want to do your whole life.”
Senior Michelle Santiago said she knows many classmates who are worried about side effects, which is why she tries to reassure them.
“I got vaccinated a while ago during the summer and I feel fine,” she said. “To be honest, I was a little bit nervous [too], but I just wanted to help the community out because I know [being] vaccinated was important to everybody, so we can have a normal life, basically.”
According to recent state data, only around 36% of adolescents 12 to 19 in Springfield are fully vaccinated. The vaccine is not yet approved for children under 12.
Springfield Health Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris said, in the last week, there were about 360 COVID cases among people under 20, which is higher than any older group. She believes unvaccinated parents are one cause of the surge.
“So we've got to get that message out: If you love your children, care about your children, get vaccinated and protect your children,” Caulton-Harris said.
School officials said they were hoping to vaccinate 200 high school students throughout the first day of the campaign.
Although staff were also invited to the clinic, a school nurse said none had come. Central High School's principal Thaddeus Tokarz said, based on conversations, he believes most staff are vaccinated, but they don't track those numbers and there is no mandate.