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Conn. Health Experts Shift Some COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts Toward Teens And Young Adults

Isaiah Woodward, a sophomore at University High School of Science and Engineering in Hartford, got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up youth clinic at Saint Francis Hospital Thurs., April 15, 2021.
Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Isaiah Woodward, a sophomore at University High School of Science and Engineering in Hartford, got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up youth clinic at Saint Francis Hospital Thurs., April 15, 2021.

Pharrell Bright sat in a plastic folding chair in the middle of a gym auditorium at Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford.

The Capital Preparatory Magnet School senior had just received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

"I saw a lot of the commercials that the hospital has been posting on TV and through the news and it’s saying, 'get vaccinated, it could save some lives,'" he said. "And I felt like I just heard it enough times that I was like, you know what, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to do." 

Bright, 18, joined other Hartford Public Schools students and their families Thursday at a pop-up youth vaccination clinic at the hospital. The goal was to administer first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to some of the state’s youngest eligible residents.

COVID-19 vaccination has been open to all Connecticut residents 16 and older since April 1. As more older adults become immunized, public health experts are beginning to put more focus on reaching teens and young adults as some worry about reluctance within these groups.

“There are going to be some others that are hesitant maybe to proceed right now and want to see how all this unfolds, and we’re going to be there for those individuals when it’s ready for them,” said Dr. Phil Roland, chief medical officer at Saint Francis.

A majority of children and teens have managed to avoid COVID-19 symptoms and illness altogether, but Roland said increasing vaccination coverage in these groups will make communities safer overall.

“Because we know that our young adults can certainly acquire COVID-19, they can transmit it to others,” he said.

State data show that about 98,000 residents aged 16 through 24 have so far received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine -- about 23% of that age group’s total population.

The two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only one authorized by the federal government for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Gov. Ned Lamont said Thursday that uptake so far in the younger age group seems to be on track.

“But I have a feeling we’re going to have to work harder with the younger demographic,” he added.

National survey results from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor project, which tracks shifting attitudes and experiences with COVID-19 vaccinations, found that 1 in 4 adults aged 18 through 29 said they would take a “wait and see” approach.

Another 26% said they would definitely not get a vaccine or would get one only if required. That’s compared to only 9% of adults 65 years and older and 20% of all adults who said the same.

But Bright’s determination to get vaccinated more closely aligns with the 50% of teens and young adults surveyed who said they want a shot, especially as some head off to college in the fall.

“I want to be able to go to class and have the normal college experience that a lot of kids have been missing,” Bright said.

Students who registered for appointments at the recent pop-up clinic in Hartford were allowed to bring one adult or guardian who could get vaccinated as well.

That’s how Bright wound up bringing along his mother, Anna Cantres, who said she initially didn’t want to get a shot.

“He wanted to, and I said fine, I’ll do it with him,” she said. “You know, sometimes our kids lead us, and I’m OK with that.”

The family lost an aunt to COVID-19 last year around this time, and Cantres said that also factored into her final decision.

High school junior Vivica Garcia got a first vaccine dose Thursday afternoon, also alongside her mother. The 16-year-old said it’s been a tough year, especially through remote learning.

“I don’t like being at home at all,” she said. “I’m not claustrophobic, but it felt like it at home last year.”

Now physically back in school full time, Garcia said it’s a relief to be able to see her friends again. But not everything is the same -- social distancing rules, masks and other safety measures are still in place.

When notice about the youth vaccine clinic came around, her dad signed her and her mom up for appointments. And Garcia questioned whether she really needed one.

“It’s been a year and I haven’t caught it [COVID-19]. I feel like I’m healthy, God bless, so,” she said.

But if getting vaccinated against COVID-19 means enjoying a typical senior year of high school, Garcia said she was willing to do it and hoped that some of her skeptical friends make the same decision.

“I would encourage them to get it, because like if we really want to go back to school normally, then yeah, they should get it,” she said.

Saint Francis officials said they plan to hold additional pop-up clinics aimed at students and their families in partnership with the school district in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.