It’s not uncommon for parents and teens to argue and disagree, but 16-year-old Adam Dubina said it was just “weird” that his mom didn’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dubina did and tried to convince his mom. Dubina said there were so many people getting the shot and “trying to get the world into a better situation,” and he wanted them to be part of that effort. But his mom was skeptical and thought otherwise.
“I didn’t know,” said Dubina’s mom, Anna Richards. “I was more against it than for it.”
When Richards learned that Oak Park and River Forest High School, her son’s school, was hosting a vaccination clinic, she started doing her own research. She began reading about the benefits of being fully vaccinated and talking to more people about it. And as the days leading up to the clinic drew near, Richards decided to sign her son – and herself – up for an appointment.
“I see more and more people getting sick and all these variations [of COVID-19],” Richards, 50, said of what pushed her to make the final call.
On Aug. 9, Richards and Dubina were among dozens of people who received the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at Oak Park and River Forest High School. While the mother-son duo now joins an increasing percentage of the vaccinated in Oak Park, the pair’s story isn’t unique. Richards and Dubina’s experience is part of a growing challenge to get households – especially eligible-youth – vaccinated, said Theresa Chapple-McGruder, director of the Oak Park Department of Public Health.
Only 23 people got the COVID-19 vaccine at OPRF – a record-high among the handful of mobile vaccination clinics held by the department in the last five weeks, Chapple-McGruder said. The clinic at OPRF was open to students and families in the high school district and invited those from Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and River Forest School District 90.
When the Pfzier vaccine became available to 12-to-15-year-olds in May, there was a surge in the number of parents who sought to get their children and teens vaccinated. Those were the “early adopters, the people who couldn’t wait to get it, and after that, we pretty much have a trickle in,” Chapple-McGruder said.
In a July memo, OPRF District 200 Superintendent Greg Johnson shared with families that 35% of Oak Park residents between 15 and 18 years old are fully vaccinated. Chapple-McGruder has yet to provide an updated count on the number of eligible-youth who have received the COVID-19 vaccines.
As of Aug. 5, about 58% of Oak Parkers – around 30,300 residents – have gotten at least one dose of the two-dose vaccine, and roughly 29,500 residents are fully vaccinated, the public health department reported. Last month, there were 83 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oak Park, a sharp increase from the 11 cases reported in June. At this rate, public health officials said Oak Park has a “substantial transmission” of the novel coronavirus.
With Illinois schools fully reopening as early as next week, the push to encourage faculty, staff and students to get their shots continues. Across three school districts in Oak Park and River Forest, administrators are urging families to consider vaccinations to help slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus, especially as public health officials become more concerned about the delta variant.
Like the elementary and high school districts, Concordia University in River Forest has also taken the step to encourage staff and students to get vaccinated upon returning to campus. Dominican University, which is also in River Forest, has opted to require staff and students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before making their way back.
The delta variant of COVID-19 is highly contagious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While breakthrough cases can occur among fully vaccinated people, the CDC maintains those cases make up only a small percentage and that the vaccines are effective. With the delta variant, unvaccinated people remain at a greater risk, as they are “much more likely to contract, and therefore transmit the virus,” the CDC reported.
Chapple-McGruder said she and her staff are constantly working to fight the misconceptions of the COVID vaccine. She has heard people say children and teens can’t catch the coronavirus or if they do get it, it’s not as “severe.” Chapple-McGruder said she has also met parents who are fully vaccinated but are in no rush to get their eligible-children the shot.
Health officials from the Mayo Clinic reported that youth who test positive for COVID could show no symptoms at all or experience mild symptoms. However, there have been cases where children are hospitalized and placed on a ventilator to help them breathe, the CDC also found.
“Death is rare [among children], but it doesn’t mean that the virus is something that you should not get vaccinated against,” Chapple-McGruder said. “In cases where death [does happen], it’s a really big deal to lose a child of any age. If we can prevent that from happening, even if it’s going to be low numbers, we should prevent that from happening.”
Chapple-McGruder said she has also heard some parents are relying on their children’s natural immunity to protect them from the coronavirus. To that, Chapple-McGruder’s response remains the same: “It’s still important to get vaccinated because we know that the vaccine plus natural immunity is really good, highly effective.”
In the last week or so, District 200, District 97 and District 90 have rolled out their safety plans. Though the three districts already sought to require staff and students to wear masks upon returning to school this fall, Gov. J.B. Pritzker doubled down on that measure and issued a mask mandate for schools and daycare centers statewide last week. Chapple-McGruder also put a mask mandate in place in Oak Park, which went into effect Aug. 6.
Practicing social distancing, asking students to opt in for COVID-19 testing, routinely cleaning classrooms and other common areas, and encouraging proper hygiene such as frequent hand washing are just a few ways schools look to continue to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
For many school officials, including those in Oak Park and River Forest, these safety plans are ones they have had in place, updated and tailored to meet the new guidelines released by the CDC and adopted by local and state public health departments.
“We’re asking ourselves different questions now,” said Amanda Siegfried, senior director of communications at District 97. “It’s not about [how are we] opening [the] schools. It’s how [about] how are we going to do it safely?”
For Chapple-McGruder, she believes there’s still a long way to go before the pandemic is over.
“We’re tired. We’re 18 months in. Everyone wants the pandemic to go away, but we can’t just want it away,” Chapple-McGruder said. “We can’t just wish it away.”
“We have to do the work that it takes in order for the pandemic to go away,” she said. “That will be mitigations and layering mitigations. That means that we need to get vaccinated. That means that everyone who can [get vaccinated] needs to in order to protect those who can’t. We also need to be vaccinated because we don’t want more variance to keep cropping up. So it’s not just do it for you, it’s do it for your community.”