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Waterbury students got an extended deadline on back-to-school vaccines

By the first day of school, Waterbury Public Schools had yet to contact the entire parent population. 10% were still unresponsive to what the district classified as repeated attempts.
Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio

Oshane Mairs’ daughter wasn’t looking forward to getting her vaccines, but Mairs couldn’t help but tease her a little.

“Stick away!” Mairs said as the nurse at the temporary vaccination at the Waterbury Department of Health stuck the first of five vaccines into her daughter’s arm. Mairs giggled as her daughter told her to stop the jokes.

“She’s nervous,” Mairs said. She explained that her daughter had to get all these vaccinations because she just moved from Jamaica and the list of required vaccinations is different in Connecticut. Now she’s a senior at Kennedy High School in Waterbury.

“If she didn’t get this before October 1st she wouldn’t go to school Monday,” Mairs said.

The Connecticut State Department of Education requires that students have their vaccinations up-to-date by the beginning of the school year, or they can’t go to school. Waterbury Public Schools pushed back the deadline to October 1st this year because close to 400 students had fallen behind on their required shots.

The list of required immunizations includes vaccines against tetanus, mumps, and pertussis.

“Children used to die in droves because vaccines didn’t exist to prevent these childhood illnesses,” Aisling McGuckin, director of health for the City of Waterbury, said, “and because we have vaccines, we lose a lot fewer children.”

But like many things, COVID disrupted those vaccination schedules. The World Health Organization reported earlier this year that23 million children worldwide missed their routine vaccines in 2020. The most dramatic impacts were abroad.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a dip in vaccinations given in America during the early months of the pandemic.

Many places never caught up with vaccinations, like Waterbury.

“We estimated that there were about 400 kids who were behind on vaccinations, if not more,” McGuckin said.

In the summer, McGuckin and the health department set up a clinic in the health department building for kids to get caught up on routine vaccinations, and for parents to get the COVID vaccine if they wanted.

Appointments booked up right away, with many going into mid-September. McGuckin said that under the rules at the time, those students would not be allowed in school until their vaccinations were up to date.

“It was a concern to me that all of these kids would be out of school until they got through that appointment,” she said.

400 students is about 2% of the Waterbury Public School population. But McGuckin saw it as 400 kids who, after a year of remote schooling, still couldn’t come into the building. She worked with the city and the state to move the deadline back to October 1st.

In the clinic, Josie Ortega, a medical assistant, handles sharing of the records between the schools and the health department. She’s also a translator. About 80% of the parents coming in are non-English speakers, she says, typically Spanish or Portuguese.

They are new to the area, Ortega says, “so they want to know where to go to get their kids taken care of.”

That's the clinic's other goal -- to get these families and their children to find a medical home, a doctor who they can return to for ear infections, yearly physicals, and of course, back-to-school vaccinations.

Ortega said “this is not a forever place, this is temporary,” and she tells the families “you have to go to your PCP or pediatrician.”

The city was awarded $4 million to continue working on COVID and general public health in racial and ethnically minority populations. The Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the Advancing Health Literacy to Enhance Equitable Community Responses to COVID-19 to help Waterbury advance health literacy in these groups over the next two years.

McGuckin says that money will help turn these stop gap measures into something a little more permanent. The city will be buying a mobile health clinic in November and setting up outdoor health expos to tackle COVID and to address physical and mental health, as well as social determinants of health like houselessness and access to food.

McGuckin thinks Waterbury succeeded in the pandemic thanks to partnerships. Earlier grants enabled churches, like Grace Baptist, and community organizations, like Madre Latina, to run vaccine clinics and spread information on reducing the risk of COVID.

McGuckin says she’s holding tight to those connections now, because the way they worked together during this health emergency was a success, and there are still many more health needs to address.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. She loves hearing what you thought of her stories or story ideas you have so please email her at aoshinskie@ctpublic.org.

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