More than 100K Utahns ages 16 and 17 are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine. Clinics are going to high schools to get it to them.

Teens and young adults make up the largest group of Utahns who can be immunized but haven’t received vaccine yet.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Badger Norman, 17, a student at Woods Cross High School receives his first Pfizer vaccine at a pop-up clinic by Nomi Health, April 27, 2021. County and regional health districts are setting up vaccination clinics in high schools, to get the COVID-19 vaccine to 16 and 17-year-olds.

Katelyn Smith appreciated how welcoming and kind the people running the clinic in the “little gym” at Woods Cross High School were — since she was, in her words, “visibly anxious” about getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

“The shot went in a lot easier than I expected,” Smith, 17, a senior at Woods Cross, said Tuesday. “It actually didn’t hurt at all, which I thought it was going to, which was a bonus. And after that, just sitting down for 15 minutes [in the observation area] was kind of relaxing.”

Smith was one of about 300 people — most of them students like herself, but also some parents and residents from the community — who signed up to get a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at Woods Cross High.

The one-day clinic and others like it are part of an effort to get Utah’s approximately 103,000 16- and 17-year-olds vaccinated against COVID-19. Besides children 15 and under — for whom the vaccine is not approved — teens and young adults make up the largest group of Utahns who have not been vaccinated yet.

The Davis County Health Department approached Nomi Health about sending Nomi’s mobile vaccination clinics to high schools in the Davis School District, said Trevor Warner, a department spokesman.

“The state has made it a priority to get 16- and 17-year-olds vaccinated,” said Dr. June Steely, medical director for Nomi Health. “The easiest way to do that is to go to schools where they are anyway, and try to get the population vaccinated before school ends.”

While the effort’s emphasis is on 16- and 17-year-olds, Steely said, “if we have the shots, we’ll give them to the 18-year-old [students].”

Students didn’t fill all the health district’s appointments at schools in the first wave of preregistrations, so the department expanded the invitation to include their family members. Deanne Kapetanov, principal at Woods Cross High School, said that expansion happened even before her students started signing up for appointments.

And meanwhile, “we’re still operating full steam ahead at the Legacy Events Center,” Warner said of his department’s massive clinic in Farmington, which caters to all Davis County residents.

Taking vaccine to teens

Nomi Health has six vaccination vans it sends to remote locations, Steely said, at the request of small county and regional health departments.

It sent vans to four high schools in northern Davis County earlier this month, and six high schools in southern Davis County on Tuesday. In between, Steely said, the vans visited schools in Tooele County, Moab and Green River.

“It’s nice that we can take the vaccine where the students are,” said Amy Bate, spokeswoman for the Tooele County Health Department.

The clinics setting up in high schools are carrying only the Pfizer vaccine, because it’s the only one of the three that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so far has approved for people 16 and older. The age limit for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson remains at 18.

Bate said 551 students in six Tooele County high schools preregistered for their first jabs, and 535 ultimately got their shots. There were a few no-shows at some schools, and a handful of walk-ins. The 535 will get their second doses of Pfizer when the vans return in mid-May, three weeks later.

The Tooele County Health Department mounted an information campaign to convince parents to give their consent to get the students vaccinated, Bate said.

“We have had some parents asking if it’s required [to get vaccinated to attend school] — which, of course, it’s not,” Bate said.

A ‘well-working machine’ in Salt Lake County

In Utah’s most populous county, the Salt Lake County Health Department is setting up its own clinics in high schools to reach almost 40,000 students, said Dr. Audrey Stevenson, the department’s division director of family health.

“We put into action a plan for all of Salt Lake County, so that we would be able to capture not just the five school districts, but also to capture private and charter schools,” Stevenson said. “Our plan is to be able to cover all of the high schools with at least the first dose prior to the end of the school year.”

This week, Salt Lake County is running clinics in five Canyons School District high schools.

District superintendents asked early on to have the clinics at schools, rather than some central location, Stevenson said, “so the student isn’t having to leave the school grounds and worry about transportation or missing coursework while they’re trying to get a vaccine.”

Stevenson’s department has “a well-working machine now to be able to do these outreach clinics,” she said. That team includes vaccinators to administer the shots, clerks to help with registration, logistics staff to handle the equipment, observers to monitor people after they’ve gotten their shots, and so on.

The Utah Department of Health reports 64.7% of Utahns between the ages of 16 and 29 have not yet received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the UDOH dashboard, 17.6% of that age group has been fully vaccinated — receiving either both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson version. Roughly the same number, 17.7%, have received one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna.

Getting back to ‘normal’ life

One advantage to getting high school students immunized, Steely said, is that schools now require students in extracurricular activities to be tested for COVID-19.

“Once the kids are fully vaccinated, the students won’t have to get tested,” Steely said. She added that her twin 17-year-old sons, who run track in school, “were very excited not to have to get swabbed every two weeks.”

Tuesday’s clinic at Woods Cross High ran with well-practiced efficiency. Two workers sat at each of three tables — one administering shots, the other behind a laptop. A vaccinator would wave someone over from the waiting area, ask the person a few questions and give the customary warnings about side effects.

The vaccinator then swabbed the person’s upper arm, inserted the needle, pressed the plunger and removed the syringe, then applied a bandage. The patient walked over to the observation area for the recommended 15 minutes, the vaccinator sprayed disinfectant on the now-empty chair and wiped it down, and the process was repeated.

Kapetanov, the principal, said having the clinic in her school “is a convenience for families and for students.”

Smith, the Woods Cross senior, liked that advantage. “It was more accessible to do it at school,” Smith said. “It’s just easier because I’m already here, and I can take the opportunity.”

Smith, because she’s 17, had to get her parents’ consent to be inoculated. “They were like, ‘Hey, you want to do this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course. You both are fully vaccinated. I might as well,’” Smith said.

“I want to get this pandemic over with,” Smith said. She’s planning on studying mortuary science this fall at Salt Lake Community College, and because of the nature of that field, she said, “I want [my life] to be as normal as I can get it. … I want a normal college life, to go out and have fun with my friends that I’d make.”