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North Country counties push to vaccinate teens

Jennifer A. Pelton, director of Adult Services at Transitional Living Services in Watertown, is vaccinated Dec. 30 for COVID-19. (Provided photo — Sydney Schaefer, Watertown Daily Times)

While more than 54% of all adults in the North Country have gotten at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, vaccination rates are a lot lower among teenagers. Only about 20% of eligible teens in the North Country have gotten a dose. County and school officials are trying to overcome obstacles to protecting more young people against the coronavirus.

If you’re a high school senior, Molly Flynn wants you to imagine all the things you’d normally get to do this time of year. “Having proms, having sports, graduations, having a more social, active summer,” says Flynn.

Flynn is a senior public health educator for the Clinton County Health Department. “We’re using those as the incentive to consider getting vaccinations for that age group.”

Not only does the COVID-19 vaccine protect you from the virus, but it also means you don’t have to miss out on everyday school activities.

“If you’re a student that gets exposed at school because someone in your class tested positive,” Flynn says, “if you’re fully vaccinated and feeling healthy and well, you still get to go to school, you still get to go to your sports games, things like that.”

About 25% of teens in Clinton County have gotten at least the first shot, which is slightly higher than the regional average. One of the big hurdles to getting more kids vaccinated is access. A lot of high schoolers can’t drive themselves to clinics and everyone under 18 needs a parent’s consent.

“Permission slips were sent to the school district to distribute to families and then the kids had to provide those slips back at the time that they were coming to the clinic,” Lehman explains. “So they can walk in as long as they have a permission slip.”

Warren County has held vaccine clinics in most of the major school districts like Glens Falls and Queensbury. They’ve also had school clinics in more remote places like Johnsburg and Chestertown. So far, they’ve vaccinated 81 students at those school clinics.

Neighboring Washington County had hoped to do the same, but health officials say parents didn’t show enough interest. To the north in Essex County, school districts like Ticonderoga are waiting to hear back about interest from parents and students. Cynthia Johnston is the superintendent of Ticonderoga schools.

“We’ve had 85% of our employees vaccinated, and I think the comfort level of everyone goes up when more kids are vaccinated,” says Johnston, “so if we can get the next round of population in that case, I think that everybody will feel more calm.”

As vaccination rates have gone up, the number of people testing positive has gone down. But the virus is still spreading here in the North Country, especially among younger people. Last weekend Jefferson County said that more than 90% of its new cases were people under the age of 50.

That same weekend, a cluster of cases was reported at a boarding school in Lake Placid. As of Thursday Essex County said Northwood School had 24 confirmed cases and another 57 people in quarantine.

Young people tend to experience less severe symptoms from COVID-19 but in rare cases, they become seriously ill. Teenagers can also spread the virus to more vulnerable adults.

“It’s my hope that we get this group vaccinated to protect them and protect our county,” said Linda Beers, Director of Public Health for Essex County. As summer vacation approaches, Beers says it’s essential that teenagers who are eligible get vaccinated.

“These are going to be our lifeguards, our kids at the ice cream parlors, kids in the retail stores, kids at the kayaks and the canoes, meeting with lots of folks from out of town, out of state, out of country.”

Beers is working to get the Pfizer vaccine at clinics in Essex County. Pfizer is the only vaccine approved for 16 to 18-year-olds and may soon be approved for kids as young as 12.

And for parents who are hesitant to get their kids vaccinated? Molly Flynn from the Clinton County Health Department says they should talk to their doctors.

“All of the studies are out there. All of the studies have come back that these vaccines are safe, that they’re effective so I’d really encourage them to discuss that with their healthcare provider. They’re a trusted messenger when it comes to health-related information.”

There’s another reason why it’s so important for teens to get vaccinated — health officials say that age group will be key reaching herd immunity, helping all of everyone get back to normal.

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