Ellen Kunkel, a sixth grader at Camden-Rockport Middle School, gets her first shot of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine at an in-school clinic on May 18. Credit: Courtesy of Arthur Durity

For a number of students at Camden-Rockport Middle School, the first official day of summer break won’t be the only reason to be excited. June 21 is also the day they will be considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Through a partnership with Pen Bay Medical Center, 178 students ― out of 264 who were eligible ― received their first dose of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine at a clinic held at the middle school last week. They are due to receive their second shot early next month.

Vaccinations for children between ages 12 and 16 began in Maine on May 11, after Pfizer’s vaccine was granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in children as young as 12. Organizations across the state are working to vaccinate eligible children before school adjourns for summer break, when infectious disease experts say getting a large number of eligible children vaccinated will be more difficult.

“Accessing kids over the summer is inherently more complicated, you’re basically fully depending on families to take their children to one place or another to get vaccinated. Getting it done before the summer is a huge plus,” according to Dr. Cheryl Liechty, an infectious disease specialist at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport. “For the kids themselves, who are going to be participating in various activities or traveling, they’re now going to be fully vaccinated for the summer and that’s a huge personal advantage for eligible kids and families.”

The Camden-Rockport clinic is one of about a dozen in-school vaccination drives organized by Pen Bay Medical Center across Knox County in recent weeks. So far, Pen Bay has administered about 856 first doses to eligible students through clinics held at schools in Camden, Lincolnville, Rockland, Hope, Appleton, Lincolnville and Islesboro, according to a spokesperson.

At almost every school clinic, more than 30 to 40 percent of students who were eligible for the vaccine took the opportunity to get vaccinated, according to Liechty. However, Camden-Rockport Middle School exceeded expected vaccine uptake rates, Liechty said, with 67 percent of eligible students receiving their first dose at the May 18 clinic.

Similar vaccination drives are happening in schools across the state. In Bangor, about 140 out of 750 eligible students ― about 19 percent ― at the city’s two middle schools received their first shot at a school clinic last week, according to Bangor Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg. Two hundred students were also vaccinated at a clinic at the high school. It’s unclear how many students in Bangor’s middle schools and high schools have been vaccinated at clinics outside school, according to Harris-Smedberg.

While children and adolescents have a low risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract COVID-19, Liechty said they remain an important age group to vaccinate because they are often what links multiple households together and are an important part of reaching herd immunity.

“Yes, it’s good to protect our children from COVID. But they’re [taking one] for the team here [by getting vaccinated]. They’re doing this for the community, they’re doing this for the herd,” Liechty said.

As it was becoming clear that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was going to expand emergency-use access for the Pfizer vaccine to children as young as 12, Liechty said the infectious disease staff at Pen Bay began reaching out to schools to see if in-school vaccination clinics could be coordinated.

Camden-Rockport Middle School Principal Jaime Stone said agreeing to host an in-school clinic was an easy decision.

“We have a captive audience [in schools],” Stone said. “Our kids come to school every day, they’re already here. It’s convenient for families to not have to make those appointments, drive them there, take time off from work and make sure they get the second appointment for a time that works with their work schedule.”

Stone and her staff had about a week’s notice before the May 18 clinic to prepare.This included sending out and collecting consent forms from parents and guardians as well as figuring out how to set up a pop-up vaccination clinic.

On the day of the clinic, staff had about two hours to get the 178 students who wanted to be vaccinated through the five vaccination stations set up on the stage of the school’s theater.

“The students were really excited but also nervous. They were worried about getting a shot. They had anxiety about the needles. But they did a really great job of supporting each other.” Stone said.

Camden Superintendent Maria Libby said she received a couple negative responses from parents who felt that holding an in-school vaccination clinic was not appropriate.

However, the school’s nurse, Gretchen Kuhn, points out that schools have historically been an integral part of vaccination efforts, as recently as during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. Additionally, some schools ― including Camden Hills Regional High School ― also offer students an opportunity to get a flu shot each year.

In advance of the clinic, Kuhn spent time educating students and parents who had questions about the vaccine.

“I did have people call me and say ‘Jeez, it feels a little scary because COVID is so new to us’ and I just referred to science. It has to be fact-based,” Kuhn said. “I feel really strongly, of course, that our way out of the pandemic is to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”

Additionally, Stone said it was made clear to students that receiving a vaccination was a personal choice and that they shouldn’t be asking other students if they received a vaccine or why they are not getting vaccinated.

While Kuhn and Stone ― who both have students in the district who got vaccinated at the in-school clinics ― said they were pleasantly surprised with the number of students who opted to get vaccinated, they weren’t shocked, given how educated students became about the virus over the last year.

“Kids really learned a lot about this [virus] this year, both in school and certainly in their households,” Kuhn said. “Of course we all want to get back to normal, or whatever the new normal is going to be, and I think students really understand that [getting vaccinated] is important.”

Liechty, whose 12-year-old was vaccinated at the Camden-Rockport Middle school clinic, said it makes her “teary” when she thinks about the number of students who stepped up to get vaccinated.

“I just think that, that community, these kids and these families, they’re really showing the young adults [who haven’t gotten vaccinated] how to do it,” Liechty said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misquoted Cheryl Liechty.