With colorful Band-Aids and ‘bravery bracelets,’ COVID vaccinations underway: ‘I couldn’t wait to get the kids vaccinated’

Photo of Currie Engel

NEW MILFORD — In the hallway of John Pettibone Community Center, two children pulled up their sleeves to show each other the brightly colored Band-Aids on their upper arms.

One of them was Micah Morrissey, the 5-year-old son of local Health Director Lisa Morrissey. He had arrived at the child vaccine clinic Tuesday afternoon to get his first round of the Pfizer vaccine — the last of Morrissey’s five kids at home to get one. Micah, who was wearing a batman mask, had said that his favorite part of the shot was getting the Band-Aid, so they’d given it to him early.

Morrissey was right at home at the clinic, leaning down to chat with the two kids about their ‘bravery bracelets’ — little wristbands with smiley faces the kids get before heading in to get the shot.

As she and Micah walked toward the vaccination room, she continued chatting with kids they encountered along the way.

“My job is the calmer of children,” she said.

After official COVID vaccine approval for children aged five to 11 came down last week, New Milford kicked their plans for a children’s clinic into gear. They needed trained staff who could work well with kids, specialized child vaccine doses, colorful stickers and Band-Aids, and a healthy sprinkling of creativity to quell needle-induced nerves.

Clinics are now open on Saturdays from about 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and Tuesday afternoons. The start time varies from noon to 4 p.m. during the weekday, depending on demand.

Last Saturday, their first day in operation, the children’s clinic vaccinated 300 kids, according to Morrissey. Tuesday afternoon’s clinic started around 1 p.m. and 90 kids had been vaccinated by the time Micah sat down at one of the stations.

The little boy sat calmly and patiently as Adrienne Williams, a nurse at Schaghticoke Middle School, prepared his vaccine. At the table, crayon-shaped Band-Aids were strewn before her, ready to go at a moment’s notice. Williams chatted with Micah about superheroes and distracted him with questions and funny noises.

“Are you ready? I’m going to put on my superhero gloves,” she said.

While Micah did not particularly enjoy the poke, he gave a thumbs up when it was done and trotted over to get some fruit snacks before heading with his dad to the observation area.

Inside the vaccination room, three stations are able to vaccinate one child at a time. Each appointment slot is about 15 minutes long to allow vaccinators time with the kids and parents, answering questions, calming nerves. Morrissey said they try to ensure no lines form because that’s when “most of the anxiety happens.”

As one mother walked in with her kids, she requested one of the nurses by name.

By contrast, in New Milford’s adult clinic, 22 vaccinators worked at once, with about five minutes per person.

“It’s less overwhelming for the kids,” Morrissey said of their altered set-up.

High demand for child vaccines

When Morrissey first opened appointments last week, 90 percent were booked through the first 10 clinic days. The department has since added hours and expanded into another space on weekends to meet demand. But Morrissey said as soon as they add new appointments, they disappear.

In September, COVID cases among students caused 26,200 kids to miss class, according to state data. New Milford saw its own case spike last month tied to two clusters of unvaccinated students.

“We saw that the appointments went really, really quickly,” Morrissey said. “What we’re really trying to do right now is expand that capacity so we can offer more appointments. If the families are asking for them, we’re going to try to hit that demand.”

The state already has a reputation for regular child vaccinations, having ranked first in the nation in this category by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this fall.

Morrissey said she expects to see the strongest demand ahead of Thanksgiving, at which point it will likely taper off. At that point, they’re guessing clinics will be half as full as they’re seeing now.

The sun was already starting to set around 4:30 p.m. when Regina Flynn corralled her three girls back into the car after they all receiving their first vaccine dose.

“I couldn’t wait to get the kids vaccinated,” Flynn said. “Even though they say that kids don’t get very sick, it just wasn’t a risk I wanted to take.”

Olivia, 10, Amelia, 9, and Charlotte, 5, were ready to get back to sleepovers and play-dates, Flynn said.

Amber Rich had promised her two younger daughters, 9-year-old Lily and 6-year-old Joey, an ice cream shop visit after their shots.

Lily already knew which flavor she was going to get: cotton candy.

Finding community with shots

When Morrissey first assessed sign-ups, she noticed that appointments were comprised of many New Milford families, but also families from Brookfield, New Fairfield, Washington and Kent in the system.

“I’m really happy that we’ve built such a rapport within the community,” Morrissey said.

In fact, Brookfield recently announced its partnership with New Milford clinics at the start of November, ahead of final vaccine approval.

“When the conversation came up about vaccinating 5 to 11-year-olds, it really was an easy, natural conversation. We’re in a really good position in New Milford where, similarly what we did with the 12- to 17-year-olds, we can extend a neighborly hand.”

Throughout the pandemic, New Milford’s clinics have served the broader community, helping getting more vaccines in arms.

At this point, Morrissey sometimes recognizes parents who came to the clinics months ago, who are now back with their kids.

“We literally know their entire family because we’ve vaccinated everyone,” she said, laughing.

The clinics aren’t just bringing together the greater community, but also allowing some families to feel better about getting together for the holidays this year.

The Flynn’s are excited to have a safe Christmas gathering in a month, once the girls are fully vaccinated.

“We’re looking forward to getting back to normalcy,” Regina Flynn said.