School clinics will be central to efforts to vaccinate 5- to 11-year-olds against COVID-19 when they become eligible for the shot in the coming weeks. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / AP

Health officials and schools across Penobscot County are preparing to launch new school-based COVID-19 vaccine clinics in the coming weeks as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration moves closer to approving shots for those 5 to 11.

Maine kids could be eligible for the shot as soon as next week after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel unanimously voted to advance the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for children within that under 12 group. Many schools are already preparing for the shots, hopeful that it could keep students in the classroom during a year that’s been prone to COVID-related schedule disruptions.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 senior physician executive at Brewer-based Northern Light Health, noted the advantages in a direct message to parents Wednesday. The shots will help keep students in school five days a week and keep them, and the rest of their community, safe. His hospital system can’t take on many more patients under the current conditions, he said.

“These vaccines are both safe and effective,” Jarvis said. “We need to get this virus under control.”

While there are many organizations involved in the efforts, from health care organizations to municipal governments to non-profits, the central location of Maine’s planned vaccination efforts for 5- to 11-year-olds will be in schools.

Patty Hamilton, director of Bangor Public Health, said her department had begun working with the state several weeks ago to make sure all local schools were connected with someone who could assist them in vaccinating 5- to 11-year-olds.

Those include the Bangor School Department, which Bangor Public Health is helping to set up vaccinations for its younger students in the coming weeks. Bangor Public Health will likely offer staffing assistance to other local school districts, Hamilton said.

Bangor school officials have scheduled tentative dates for providing vaccines at the department’s five elementary schools over six weeks, said department Director of Pupil Services Christy Babin and department nurse Suzie Houghton.

The first of those clinics would be after school at James F. Doughty School and William S. Cohen School in about two weeks if the FDA provides emergency-use authorization to the shot for 5- to 11-year-olds by then, they said. The department chose those two schools because they are centrally located in the district.

Parents and guardians would bring students to those first clinics, while the department would hold the remaining ones during school hours.

It is ultimately the parent’s choice for students to get vaccinated, Babin and Houghton noted. However, vaccinating students would be another tool, along with pooled testing and masking, to cut down on COVID transmission and quarantine from exposure to those with the virus, they said. Students who are vaccinated and symptom-free are exempt from quarantine if they are close contacts of someone with COVID-19.

It is unclear to school officials how many parents will sign up. Some had made their interest clear, though schools haven’t taken a systemic count. Bangor officials and those from other area school districts said that previous vaccine clinics in their schools had seen strong attendance.

For the youngest group eligible to be vaccinated, those 12-15, Penobscot County lags behind the rest of the state. Some 52 percent of residents in that group are immunized in the county, the sixth-lowest rate of Maine’s 16 counties. By comparison, 73 percent of Penobscot County residents over 16 have received at least one shot.

Hampden-based Regional School Unit 22 will partner with a local health care group for on-site vaccination clinics with additional assistance from Hampden Fire/EMS and Winterport Fire/EMS, said Brittany Layman, health and wellness coordinator in the district.

“Schools are a trusted and safe place for our students and families,” she said. “It makes sense to offer the clinics in these safe spaces.”

Layman has been anxiously awaiting the FDA’s decision for both professional and personal reasons. Her 11-year-old daughter has twice had to quarantine since the beginning of the year.

“She wants to explore, see her friends and family, and feel normal,” Layman said. “I hope she is first in line when we have our clinics.”

While parents will make different decisions on the matter, health officials, including Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah, see their role as helping explain the advantages of the vaccine.

“Will there be concern among parents? Of course there will be — totally reasonable,” Shah said. “Our job is to be straight with people, answer their questions earnestly and make sure that they’ve got the tools and the data they need to make sure their kids get the shot, pretty much.”

Vaccinations could help prevent future outbreaks, said Gregg Palmer, superintendent of the Brewer School Department.

The department plans to offer a vaccine clinic at the school, with the goal of providing shots when parents and guardians can be with their children, such as late afternoon or over the weekend. RSU 22 will also encourage parents to be with their children to ensure a safe environment.

Palmer said that the pooled testing program had done much to reduce the number of students required to quarantine when they are close contacts of someone who has COVID-19. That number of students who have to quarantine is even lower at Brewer High School, Palmer said, where most students are vaccinated, and all are eligible.

“We’re hopeful it will help us take the next step toward normalizing our students’ school experience this year,” Palmer said.