Portsmouth High students receive first COVID-19 vaccine at clinic

95 students ages 16-18 receive dose; ages 12-15 are next

By Jim McGaw
Posted 5/8/21

PORTSMOUTH — Ashley Wemmer, a senior at Portsmouth High School, said she was excited to be one of 95 students receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic setup inside …

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Portsmouth High students receive first COVID-19 vaccine at clinic

95 students ages 16-18 receive dose; ages 12-15 are next


PORTSMOUTH — Ashley Wemmer, a senior at Portsmouth High School, said she was excited to be one of 95 students receiving their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic setup inside the school’s field house Friday.

“Yes, because then I can do more things and be more free,” said Ashley, who scheduled a shot during her free period.

About two weeks after she receives her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine on May 28 (after her body has built up immunity to the virus), Ashley will be “free” to do things she couldn’t do during the pandemic. That includes hanging out indoors with other friends who have been fully vaccinated — and without masks.

“I’ll probably go to more fun things that I couldn’t do before, or maybe go into stores more,” she said,

Gov. Daniel McKee and the R.I. Department of Health asked each municipality to host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for high school students ages 16 to 18, along with household family members. Those vaccinated Friday all scheduled appointments between noon and 5 p.m. Little Compton students who attend PHS were also eligible.

Younger students are next on the list.

“We just got word today that the state wants us to go forward with 12-year-olds and above (up to age 15),” said Ray Perry, director of the Portsmouth Emergency Management Agency. Although the town is still working out the logistics, those clinics should start within the next two weeks, he said.

Richard Talipsky, the town’s director of business development, has been the main point person behind the local vaccine clinics.

“This is the 25th clinic in which we’ve participated — both the regional ones in Bristol, our own that we had at Raytheon, and now at the high school. We’ve done about 3,000 people from the town,” he said.”

The town deploys its standard medical emergency distribution system that’s been active for years, he said. 

“It includes some of the town department staff, police and fire, but it’s mostly volunteers that we have solicited over the past few years,” Mr. Talipsky said, noting that many of the same volunteers staffed the town’s clinic at Raytheon Co. earlier this year.

Volunteers “have been exceptionally generous” with their time, he said.

“We have a list of about 145 volunteers,” said Mr. Talipsky. “It takes about 40 to staff a clinic, and we rotate them around. We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve got well-trained people; we don’t have to train them up to their position. They come in, set up a desk, and they’re ready to go.”

One of those volunteers is Debbie Light, who was administering doses of the vaccine to students on Friday. “I’ve done probably eight to nine of the MEDS-PODs — Bristol, Raytheon and now here,” she said, referring to the medical emergency distribution system’s (MEDS) point of dispensing (PODs).

Targeting skeptics

Although things went smoothly Friday, volunteers had wished for a better turnout, since there are about 500 students ages 16 to 18 locally, Mr. Talipsky said.

“We figured that about 200 were already vaccinated some other way, so you have 300 to be vaccinated, and we’re getting 95. That’s about 20 to 30 percent, which is what we’re seeing as the average around the state,” he said.

When asked what he would tell someone who is resisting the vaccine, Mr. Talipsky replied, “I’m an old-school vaccination person. Get a vaccine. It’s better than getting the disease. A lot of people think that this vaccine is not proven, but I think it’s been tested much more than most vaccines. Even the annual flu vaccine gets tested less than this one.”

Mr. Perry agreed, and said the next step is a public information campaign to get more people vaccinated.

“From a tactical perspective, that’s our next focus,” he said. “We’re trying to look at those people who are reluctant right now. There’s going to be a set of those saying, ‘No, you’re just going to convince us.’ But the feeling right now from the medical experts is that a lot of people are on the fence, and they’re not going to switch over and say ‘yes’ just because one of our guys said so.” 

The local vaccination clinic team, he said, would like to connect residents who, are skeptical, or whom have questions, with a local expert or doctor to address their concerns.

“And, we’re going to encourage them to talk to their own physicians — somebody they’re comfortable with. At the end, if they’re still uncomfortable, we have to respect that decision. But we’ve got to provide them the information,” Mr. Perry said.

For her part, Ashley said she didn’t know of any friends who are choosing not to get vaccinated. “Not so far, no. Most people I know have already gotten it,” she said.

Ms. Light also thought she’d see more students come out Friday.

“I think now that there are going to be walk-ins at different places, it will be easier for people to get it. They won’t have to make an appointment, so that will help,” she said, adding that Newport County still has a better turnout rate than most parts of the state.

The low turnout will impact the timeframe for the second-dose clinic on May 28, Mr. Talipsky said.

“Knowing that we have only 95 people to get their second dose, instead of stretching it out over a five-hour period, we can compress it into a two-hour period. With our staff, we can do 100 an hour, easy,” he said.

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.