By Lillian Lema
On Tuesday morning May 4, students from Casco Bay High School (CBHS) went to the Portland Expo to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Becky Bell, RN, school nurse at CBHS and Portland Arts and Technology High School, was in attendance to share information about the vaccine.
In Maine, individuals 16 and older are eligible to get vaccinated, and state officials encourage young people to do so. According to Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah, COVID is spreading faster among young people than older people now, because their vaccination rate trails that of older Mainers. At CBHS about half of the student body is eligible for the vaccine.
Doaa Abdullah, 17, and a senior at CBHS, decided to get vaccinated partly because she doesn’t want to get sick, but also because she wants to help put an end to the pandemic. “I think everyone should get the vaccine so that we can end the pandemic and everyone can be safe,” Abdullah said. She said she was excited to get her first dose and has been encouraging friends to do the same. “They’re nervous. I tell them ‘you don’t have to be! I am getting it so you are going to see what’s going to happen to me!’” she said. Unlike her friends, Abdullah has not needed any persuasion on this matter. “I think it is a good thing that is being provided,” she said. She believes that as young people see more and more people their age get vaccinated, peer-pressure will come into play in a positive way.
Nurse Bell said,“The principal has been very good about pushing the messaging out, both on Twitter and through his direct communication with the students. They were just coming into the office asking ‘can you help me get the vaccine?’” Abdullah commended Nurse Bell’s approach, which includes reaching out to students to ask them if they want help getting vaccinated. In addition, Abdullah thinks walk-ins are great, and convenient for the public.
Devyn Shaughnessy, 17, a junior with an interest in epidemiology, has volunteered at the Portland Expo since March. Some weeks she is there four days a week. She appreciates the friendly environment. On Tuesday, she was scheduled to get her second dose of the vaccine. “I’m so excited. I’m so ready!” she said. “ I would really like society to go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”
Nurse Bell said that students who have been in close contact with someone who contracted COVID-19 understand why the vaccine is important. “For those who might have not taken it seriously, or COVID fatigue has kicked in a little bit, what happens is that when students were told they were close contacts [with an infected person], had to quarantine, and miss activities, it really drilled home that this is not something they want to deal with,” she explained. Shaugnessy’s CREW class at school had to go through a ten-day quarantine, and she described the experience as ‘horrible’ and ‘miserable.’
But some students, like CBHS seniors Jireh Nyarushatsi and Dan Ninziza, both 18, were hesitant to give the vaccine an unequivocal green light. “We have heard stories about the vaccine and we aren’t sure if they are true…like ‘this guy died from this or that,’” Nyarushatsi said. Out of all three available vaccines, Nyarushatsi said that he didn’t feel comfortable getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of the alarming stories he has heard regarding its side effects. He said if that was the vaccine of choice for the day (it wasn’t), he would not proceed with getting vaccinated.
But all three students decided to go ahead, and cited Nurse Bell’s help and encouragement as a factor. “She told us the importance of having vaccines, how getting COVID can affect other people in our communities,” Ninziza explained. And the students said that Nurse Bell has helped them register for their appointments. Bell said that having one on one conversations with students on the benefits of vaccination, and providing them with information, is helpful with youth.
“She is a nurse. She knows what she is talking about. It is way different than a regular person telling you to get vaccinated,” Nyarushatsi said.
For many students, including Abdullah, Nyarushatsi, and Ninziza, online school has been difficult. They say they learn better in-person. However, Abdullah sees the light at the end of the tunnel. “We are almost through it. We have almost graduated!” she said. In the fall she will be attending Southern Maine Community College, majoring in business. She hopes to travel to Turkey once the pandemic is over.
“It’s important for everyone to get vaccinated. For everything to be over. As a society we need to work together,” Nyarushatsi said. “That’s the best way for recovery. To go back to schools, to malls, to hang out. Ninziza agreed. “The more people that get it the better,” he said. Both will be attending University of Southern Maine in the fall, and look forward to in-person classes.
When Shaugnessy talks with her friends and peers about vaccination, she tries to understand their hesitancy, and then gently attempts to correct their misunderstandings. She directs them to the CDC website, or the New York Times or Washington Post. She plans to follow a pre-med path in college. By the end of the month she will have reached 150 hours of volunteer time at the Portland Expo. “If you know of anyone who needs a shot just send them on down!” she said.