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Westchester High School Students Warming to COVID Vaccine Despite Concerns

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By Alexa Jindal and Annie Dineen

As vaccination eligibility opens up to children as young as 12 years old, many Westchester County teenagers who saw their age group allowed to take Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for weeks, have had to grapple with whether they will get the shots.

Westchester County teens
Area officials are hoping that information and educational campaigns will convince more teenagers to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

They have had to wrestle with the prospect of how severe the side effects may be and whether it is even necessary to get vaccinated. They have also had to differentiate between reliable information and misinformation.

While there may be reservations among some and vaccination rates statewide for the youngest age groups have lagged, in part because they are the most recent to become eligible, there is a strong desire among many local students to try and return to the life they had before March 2020.

“The vaccine has the collective support of so many medical professionals, and it was made by companies that have been creating medical aids like this for years,” said Dylan Krsulich, a senior at Briarcliff High School. “So, my parents and I agreed that getting the vaccine was the right choice for me.”

Abby Ward, a Dobbs Ferry High School student, said she and some of her peers hope the vaccination efforts will allow them to “go back to normal and to be able to live life again this summer without worrying at all,” something that has been missed for more than 14 months.

For high school seniors, many colleges and universities, including all of New York’s public colleges and some private schools as well, are requiring students to get vaccinated in order to attend in-person classes in the fall. Ward, who will be attending Middlebury College, a private school in Vermont, also needed the vaccine to attend classes in person.

Haley Harris, a senior at Byram Hills High School, said Tulane University in New Orleans, where she will be attending college next school year, has not announced whether the vaccine will be a requirement to attend class, but the school is a vaccination site.

Harris received the Pfizer vaccine, the only one of the three vaccines available to youngsters from 12 to 17 years old, in April.

“Besides the side effects my family and friends had told me about, I didn’t have any concerns about getting the vaccine,” she said.

Ward and Harris had relatively mild and common side effects, including fatigue, arm soreness, headache, fever and chills, but were relieved when they finally were vaccinated.

School districts and county governments in Westchester and Putnam have also been encouraging their students to get vaccinated. High schools have been providing resources and information on scheduling vaccines. In weekly e-mails, Briarcliff High School provides links to the Ossining Briarcliff Vaccine Angels website to help students and their families schedule appointments.

There have been multiple pop-up vaccination sites at Westchester high schools for students and staff in the past few weeks. On May 14, Westlake High School partnered with Pleasantville and Valhalla high schools to administer about 100 doses. Last week, Bedford and Katonah-Lewisboro engaged in a similar arrangement, resulting in a pop-up site at Fox Lane High School, and Hendrick Hudson and Croton high schools will do the same this week.

In Putnam last Thursday, the county Department of Health administered its 20,000th COVID-19 vaccine dose at the Philipstown Recreation Center in Garrison where the majority of vaccine recipients were local teens. Putnam will hold additional clinics this week, returning Tuesday afternoon to the recreation center and on Thursday at Lakeview Plaza in Brewster.

There have been educational efforts as well. Westchester County recently released a vaccination public service announcement featuring Knicks players Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley.

While resources for youth access to the vaccine have increased, not all teens are sold. Norah Kuduk, a senior at Horace Greeley High School who received her vaccine soon after becoming eligible, said many of her friends and their parents share concerns.

“Most of my friends scheduled appointments to get their vaccines as soon as they were able to, though some were concerned themselves about the side effects, and other parents were more hesitant than they were about the shot,” Kuduk said.

Some teens’ hesitation stems from potential unknown long-term side effects. For some, getting COVID-19 seems to be less risky and less harmful than receiving a vaccine. Additionally, for the parents of female teenagers, the fear of potential fertility problems also plays a factor into the hesitation.

During a May 13 virtual Town Hall hosted by County Executive George Latimer aimed primarily at younger people on the importance of getting the vaccine, Dr. Mill Etienne, a neurologist at Westchester Medical Center, answered common questions about the vaccine. He was joined by Dr. DaMia Harris-Madden, executive director of the Westchester Youth Bureau, and several high school and college students throughout the county.

Etienne explained that the vaccine helps the immune system immediately identify the spike protein portion of the virus, which can then more easily fight it off in the future.

Etienne debunked a common fallacy that the vaccine can give you the virus, a piece of misinformation often recited by those looking to avoid getting vaccinated. He also said the shots don’t cause infertility, another frequent myth.

“There is no evidence at all that any of the vaccines impact fertility,” Etienne said. “In fact, even patients who have been pregnant, through consultation with their physicians, many of them have gotten the vaccine.”

He explained that people use a “cost-benefit analysis,” weighing the risks of a COVID-19 exposure against the risks and benefits of the vaccine. For those worried about being too young to get vaccinated, Etienne said they shouldn’t be.

“The age will not be dropped to include anybody younger until there is enough data about that particular population,” he said. “That’s why you see the age each time is getting lowered; it’s really based on the data that we have available about who can actually safely get vaccinated.”

Town Hall panelist Jack Kelly, a Harrison High School junior, said he was excited when the eligibility was lowered to those who are 16, allowing him to get the vaccine. He experienced the side effects of tiredness and grogginess for a short period of time but that was surpassed by the prospect of being able to start returning to normal.

“I am really enthused about getting young people vaccinated and hoping to crush this pandemic so that we can enter a world where we don’t have to deal with many of the problems and adversities that this pandemic has brought upon us,” Kelly said.

Kuduk raised another critical factor with teens’ reasons for obtaining the vaccine.

“Those that were hesitant, though, have said that if the vaccine becomes a required thing (for college or travel) they will make appointments for sure,” she said.

New Rochelle High School senior Hallye Boughner said she was initially skeptical, but then decided that she wouldn’t allow myself to be hesitant anymore.

Julia Kavanagh, junior at Rye Country Day School, felt that it was her “responsibility to keep vulnerable people safe” and protect themselves against the virus.

Etienne said the vaccine also does not clash with medications. He said in the early days of the pandemic, the medical community and other leaders urged mask wearing. Now it’s time for people to do the same with the vaccine.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we told everyone, even if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for somebody else you love, somebody else you care about, and I’ll say the exact same thing about these vaccines,” Etienne said. “Even if you think, I’m not vulnerable, I’m not gonna die from COVID, nothing bad’s gonna happen to me, think about the other person that you care about who might actually be affected by COVID, think about the person who might not be able to get the vaccine for whatever reason. You want to protect that person.” 

For information on eligibility and vaccination sites, the public may call 1-833-697-4829 or visit

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