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NJ EMS volunteer, 16, faces challenges getting COVID-19 vaccine

Kelsey Quinones, a member of the Cranford First Aid Squad, has struggled to find an available Pfizer vaccine, the only vaccine considered safe for those under 18

Kevin Shea

CRANFORD, N.J. — Kelsey Quinones is about as frontline of a healthcare worker as you can get. She volunteers with the Cranford First Aid Squad, working 12-hour weekend shifts responding to emergencies and often taking patients to area hospitals.

The work qualifies her to get the coronavirus vaccine, now, as an EMS member of Phase 1A.

But Kelsey is 16 years old, and can only receive the Pfizer vaccine, which is cleared for people as young as 16. The Moderna vaccine is only for people 18 and older.

While Kelsey attends high school, her mother Carole Quinones has been trying to get her daughter a vaccination appointment for well over a week now.

It’s been a frustrating, dizzying swirl of emails and phone calls, none that have yielded answers, or an appointment. Carole believes her daughter and others teens who work in EMS, especially in volunteer squads, are a population overlooked by the state as it rolls out its COVID-19 vaccine process.

“I feel like I’ve emailed a million people,” Carole said. “People have been super helpful, but nobody has Pfizer.”

As of Thursday, the state’s COVID-19 dashboard indicated that 287,840 vaccinations had been administered and 47% of them have been Pfizer, however no one in the 16 to 17-year-old age group had received one, according to state statistics.

Pfizer also requires storage at temperatures if minus 70 degrees Celsius, and only certain facilities – like hospitals - are equipped to handle it. The Moderna dose also has to be frozen, but at minus 20 Celsius, like a regular freezer.

In addition to all the local, county and state health officials she’s queried, as well as her pediatrician, Carole has also called several hospitals and their parent healthcare companies, and even Sen. Cory Booker, looking for tips.

“Nobody has answers,” Carole said.

Complicating matters, when facilities list that they have the vaccine, they do not specifically say if they have Pfizer, so showing up and hoping seems like a bad plan, she said. And calling them, forget it, she said. The list of sites to get vaccinated is currently over 100 and growing.

Carole was particularly perplexed at the two hospitals where the rescue squad transports the most patients - Overlook Medical Center in Summit, and University Hospital in Newark - told her Kelsey was not eligible, despite her presence in their hospitals.

Kelsey is sometimes in or around the hospitals for up to an hour, delivering a patient, restocking and cleaning the ambulance, her mom said.

Last week, after four fruitless days on the phone and computer, she gave up and took the weekend off, while her daughter worked at the squad.

Kelsey is not even an EMT yet; she’s enrolled in a training course that starts in two weeks. She’s volunteering because she wants to be a nurse, she said. Because she’s a minor, her mom has been the main caller, but Kelsey is engaged in the search too.

“This is a problem,” Kelsey said.

This week, the difficulty of the 16-year-old being able to get a vaccine grew tremendously as the state opened up eligibility to anyone 16 to 64 years of age with certain medical conditions or smoke, and anyone over 65. That’s 4.7 million people.

As of Thursday, the list the state maintains now shows the age eligibility for each facility, but only three sites show they can vaccinate a 16-year-old.

Several other 16 and 17-year-olds work in EMS in Cranford, and other Union County towns, Carole said. Volunteers of local squads are often not even employees of the towns they serve, but of the squad organization, which are usually nonprofits. How they fall on a town’s radar for vaccinating first responders is unclear.

Cranford has a paid EMS squad that operates Monday through Friday during the day, and the volunteers cover the night shift and weekends. The town’s administrator did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Carole said she does not seek special treatment for Kelsey, and she understands the hierarchy of the phase system.

“It’s an equal access issue. She’s she a 1A first responder, and she’s at risk.”


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