Maine COVID-19 vaccination clinic sees ‘tears of joy’ from parents of young children

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SANFORD, Maine — As his 19-month-old son, Wilder Lynch, squirmed in his arms, Jesse Cinquegrano tapped his phone and tried to figure out which COVID-19 vaccine would best serve his family.

Sanford’s vaccination clinic was like many others, except the worker in front of Biddeford’s mother used Gary, a stuffed gorilla, to entertain Wilder while explaining the differences between the Pfizer and Moderna plans for children under 5 years.

Pfizer is on a three-shot regimen, with the third dose coming at least two months after the last. Moderna’s two-dose schedule is completed after one month. Cinquegrano and his partner had been vaccinated against Pfizer and initially thought their children would too.

But timing turned out to be important. They chose Moderna for Wilder and his 3-year-old brother, Bastian, expecting a more normal life for two years after the pandemic began.

“It was very difficult because I stay at home with them, which is much easier than going to school, but we lost a lot of socializing because of that,” Cinquegrano said.

A man and child sit under a banner at a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Sanford on Thursday, June 23, 2022. The free clinic began vaccinating children under age 5 on Tuesday. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

That’s the kind of math Maine parents make during the first week of vaccine availability for children under age 5. Parents who rushed to get their children vaccinated this week said the step was a relief after a long wait. Still, this rollout is likely to be the slowest, with large numbers of parents not rushing to get their young children vaccinated.

The Sanford clinic, operated by the York County Emergency Management Agency, is a unique scene at this stage of the pandemic. This is the latest mass vaccination clinic to open in Maine, occupying a former Marshalls store in a strip mall.

Most young children are expected to be vaccinated in pediatricians’ offices, but this requires appointments. Maine’s second largest health care provider, Northern Light Health, based in Brewer, will not offer vaccines to the younger population until next week. A mix of state laws and company policies also prevent many pharmacies from vaccinating children under age 3.

So interest in the clinic was high in the early days, said York County EMA deputy director Megan Arsenault. It primarily served York County residents, but she said people from New Hampshire and even North Bangor made the trip.

The agency staffs the clinic with pediatricians capable of answering parents’ questions. A corner is dedicated to coloring books. Chairs are set up in front of a television, from which the sounds of Disney’s “Encanto” can be heard from the booths where the beatings were administered. A table filled with stuffed animals awaits children after getting their shots, and a space has been set aside for nursing parents. Most of the crowd was accompanied by young children, but a few adults received encores.

“We saw tears on Tuesday and again today, and not tears of little ones, but tears of parents,” Arsenault said. “Tears of joy and gratitude.”

Despite this interest, state figures showed the effort got off to a slow start. Only 178 first doses had been administered on Wednesday. The state has enough doses to vaccinate 40% of the under-5 population, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, during a Thursday visit to the clinic.

So far, vaccine uptake has been slower in Maine and nationwide among younger populations. A national Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in early May that one in five parents wanted their child under the age of 5 to be vaccinated as soon as possible, while nearly 2% in 5 said they would wait. Another quarterback said he definitely wouldn’t.

Maine CDC director Nirav Shah speaks at an immunization clinic.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, speaks with reporters during a free COVID-19 vaccination clinic at a shopping center in Sanford Thursday afternoon, June 23, 2022. The walk-in clinic, operated by the York County Emergency Management Agency is the last of its kind in Maine. Credit: Troy R. Bennett/BDN

Shah stressed that there was nothing wrong if parents took the time to get their children vaccinated. He said the numbers would likely rise as more pediatricians — some of whom may not have had to order COVID-19 vaccines yet — see interest from parents as the year progresses.

“The younger you go down the chain, the less urgency there is [getting vaccinated] becomes,” Shah said. “It’s an important thing, it’s urgent, but it’s not an emergency.”

For many of the state’s youngest children, life during the pandemic has been the same since March 2020, said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, incoming president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Although young children do not get very sick in most cases from the virus, parents have had to consider the risks associated with events or daycare.

“The rest of us who are feeling the protection from the vaccine have been able to move on,” she said. “Parents of younger children are holding their breath.”

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