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'Time is now' for teen-centered vaccine clinic, health officials say

Old Saybrook — The road to normalcy for some area teens took them through Old Saybrook on Thursday, where they got their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine at a drive-thru clinic.

The event, targeted at 16-, 17- and 18-year-old students, drew people from all along the shoreline and Connecticut River. Among those who pulled up to the vaccination site was East Lyme High School senior Kevin Mills.

The 18-year-old said his goal in getting the shot was to help end the COVID-19 pandemic so life could return to normal.

For Kevin, that means "being able to walk around with no mask on, being able to do stuff without having any specific requirements to follow."

His mom, Linda, said she heard about the clinic through a letter from the East Lyme school system. She cited the easy registration process as one of the reasons for getting her son vaccinated over the river.

The successful drive-thru model is sponsored by the Old Saybrook Police Department in partnership with the Connecticut River Area Health District. Police Chief Michael A. Spera said the 400 teens who came through the vaccination site at Old Saybrook Middle School this week will help the department reach a total of 20,000 jabs by Saturday.

Spera said those numbers have made Old Saybrook a leader in the statewide fight against COVID-19 for about eight weeks running.

"That's twice our population that we've vaccinated," he said.

Connecticut River Area Health District Director of Health Scott Martinson said the focus of the clinic has shifted over time. Early on, the target clientele was first responders and those in the medical field, with about half of the Connecticut State Police and members of numerous municipal departments driving through the streamlined setup.

The health district's focus this week is on teens because "now is the time" to get vaccinated if they want to be protected for events like prom and graduation, according to Martinson.

"They have to be really pushed — through the schools, through their parents or someone — to get them motivated to get here," he said.

One of Spera's many contributions to the public health campaign was the idea for the vaccinateteens.com website address that everyone was surprised to find available. Calling it a "buy it from Go Daddy for $11.99" move, Spera said the main point was to make registration easy.

"A lot of people have been having problems with the VAMS website or MyChart, so we said 'let's just make it catchy, let's make it easy,'" he said.

Spera described a "round-the-clock" approach through which the department takes care of all back-end registration tasks as well as day-of coordination functions. He said he even pulls in the overnight dispatch crew to log in appointments, so the stickers are printed and ready for the registration cards being used that afternoon.

"I believe any police department's priority is to help their citizens with their greatest need. We're in the middle of a worldwide, unprecedented public health pandemic. So, if a police agency is not responding to the pandemic, they're not doing their job," he said.

Martinson said he's heard from area superintendents who have told him how much they want students to have as normal an end to the school year as possible.

The health director's advice? "Get vaccinated."

"Because if you're not vaccinated and you're a close contact, you're going to get wiped out of whatever you're thinking of doing," he said. "That's the bottom line."

He gave the example of one kid on a sports team who happens to come down with the coronavirus right before the prom. Suddenly, 30 kids who were his close contacts have to stay home on the big night due to the required quarantine.

Martinson and the health district's public health nurse, Sherry Carlson, emphasized that getting fully vaccinated means students are no longer required to quarantine if they are a close contact of someone with COVID-19 — as long as they are two weeks past the second dose of the vaccine and are not exhibiting any symptoms of the disease.

Lyme-Old Lyme Superintendent of Schools Ian Neviaser was one of the area superintendents who directed kids to the teen-centric clinic. He said he encourages people to consider getting the vaccine in order to make sure the school district can continue to keep people safe.

The district has had only 57 confirmed cases of COVID-19 between students and staff since last March, according to Neviaser. And, this school year, the district has maintained a full-time schedule even as many other districts in the state chose a hybrid model that combined remote and classroom learning.

Individual school buildings within the district had to close due to COVID-19 for only four days in total since the beginning of the school year, he said. And the middle school didn't have a single building closure — nor was a single classroom shut down for quarantine.

Neviaser credited the school community's "bold commitment" to keep masks on, to socially distance, to wash hands, to stay home when they're sick and to communicate with the school.

"I also give credit to our faculty and staff for really making the courageous move of deciding that we should be all in," he said. "I know a lot of other districts throughout the state struggled with that, but we had tremendous support from our staff to return to full in-person learning, and from our parents and our community. I applaud them for supporting that decision."

But Neviaser emphasized it is a family choice whether or not a student should get vaccinated.

"We do highly encourage people to consider getting it, because we recognize the benefits of the vaccine, but it is not our place to mandate that for our students or our staff," he said.

Maeve Burrier, a junior at Lyme-Old Lyme High School, wove her way through the registration area and under the big tent, where the leery student received her first shot through the window of the back passenger seat. Then the bright blue Subaru hatchback proceeded around the school on its way to "station 100," the clinic's final destination. That's where the recently vaccinated wait out a 15-minute period in their idling vehicles to ensure they have no serious, immediate side effects.

There, Maeve received a grape lollipop, a sticker and an appointment for her second vaccination from Old Saybrook Selectman Scott Giegerich.

"Sounds like a plan, man," Maeve said to Giegerich after he gave her the date for her return trip.

Other than "shaking a little bit" due to a fear of needles, the 16-year-old said she felt fine.

"I didn't even cry, so it was pretty nice," she added.

Maeve said the drive-thru opportunity presented itself at the right time. At first, she wasn't even planning to get the shot because she figured enough people would get to it before she did. Then she realized many others were probably having that same thought.

"So, I decided to take one for the team," she said.

e.regan@theday.com

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