Camden City School District offers Pfizer shots to students

Eric Mendez receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot

Eric Mendez, 17, Mastery High School student, received his first COVID-19 vaccine shot at Thomas Dudley Elementary School in Camden, N.J., on July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Camden City School District hosted on Thursday its first COVID-19 vaccination clinic for eligible students, in advance of the start of in-person classes in September.

The clinic, held at Thomas H. Dudley Family School in East Camden, was conducted in partnership with the Camden County Health Department, the Camden Coalition, and CAMCare Health Corp. Though the aim was to reach students 12 and older who are eligible to get the Pfizer vaccine, the shots were also made available to adults who wanted them.

Mark Roberts is the President and CEO of CAMcare. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine remains the only one authorized for children ages 12-15 in the United States.

Maritza Camacho received the Pfizer shot along with her 16-year-old son Andres Mercado, a rising senior at Mastery High School. Camacho said she wanted to educate herself on the vaccines before signing up for one. But seeing news about the fast-moving, more contagious delta variant, as well as hearing about family and friends who have died from COVID-19, prompted her to get vaccinated.

Andres Mercado, 16, and his mom Maritza Camacho got their first shot at the Camden school COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Thomas Dudley Elementary School on July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Now that I see there’s so many people getting really, really sick, I said, ‘I have to go do this,’” she said.

Andres said that, for him, getting the shot was more of a requirement.

“Especially in terms of going to school, I feel like it’s going to be mandatory for me to get the shot,” Andres said. He, too, has paid attention to the news and heard from other family members about the virus, adding that he felt it was important to get the shot to move forward with life.

“I felt like this is something I have to do,” Andres said. “If not, it would have been scary.”

In Camden County, 55% of those who are eligible have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine. However, the county’s vaccination rate is 49%. Within the Camden City School District, at least 25% of eligible students are vaccinated.

Ruben Vidal, 13, received his first COVID-19 vaccine shot at Thomas Dudley Elementary School in Camden, N.J., on July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

District Superintendent Katrina McCombs said it has been challenging to reach students, in part because of community hesitancy toward the virus. The majority of the city’s residents are people of color. To combat misinformation and myths, the district has been doing outreach to families and hosting small group sessions to educate people about the vaccine.

McCombs, who is African American, said she talked to young people at the event about her own experience getting vaccinated. She also noted the historical mistrust that has contributed to low vaccination rates among students of color.

“They’re just afraid,” she said. “Some of them just don’t know what to expect, and they need to know that people who look like them have taken the vaccine and are still moving around and still fine.”

The clinic in the city of Camden wasn’t the only one that took place in the region. Earlier in the day, 120 students received shots during a clinic at Timber Creek Regional High School in Sicklerville, Camden County. In Burlington County, the first vaccination clinic for students was scheduled Thursday at Ridgway Middle School in Edgewater Park.

McCombs said the Camden City district is hoping to assure everyone that schools will be safe when classes begin.

“As we prepare for in-person learning in September, we just want to make sure that any barriers that would get in the way of families feeling safe to send their students to school, that we are helping to relieve those barriers,” she said.

Buttons up for grabs at the Camden school COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Thomas Dudley Elementary School on July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The students who arrived to get their doses of the Pfizer vaccine were looking forward to returning to school in person.

Angel Garcia, 12, said the last school year was difficult because he spent the entire time at home in virtual learning.

“It’s very distracting from everything because we have siblings, and sometimes they bother us with their studies,” Angel said. “We live in a small apartment, which is very hard to get the noise away from, but we’re used to it sometimes, and we try to deal with it.”

Cousins Damin Ortiz, 12, (left) and Angel Garcia, 12, (right) received their first COVID-19 vaccine shots at Thomas Dudley Elementary School in Camden, N.J., on July 29, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Same,” chimed in his cousin, 12-year-old Damon Ortiz, who also lives in the apartment. “There’s a lot of noise.”

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