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'It's about relief and hope'

Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital vaccinates Oceanside, Island Park school staff

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Moments after rolling up his sleeve to receive the vaccine that he had awaited for months, not even the facemask he was wearing could hide the joy in Frank Luisi’s face.

“Today is about two things — it’s about relief and hope,” he said, “and that’s what this is.”

Luisi, the adviser for NCAA college-bound student athletes at Oceanside High School, was one of 300 employees of the Oceanside, Island Park, Long Beach and Rockville Centre school districts who were eligible to be inoculated on Friday. The event was the launch of a pilot program at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital to vaccinate teachers and other school staff in Nassau County after a news conference at one of the hospital’s Covid-19 pods in Rockville Centre.

Luisi said he was eligible to receive the vaccine sooner, but had difficulty making an appointment. He added that he was grateful to the hospital staff and the district for giving him the opportunity, and that his grandchildren eagerly anticipated his being inoculated.

“Cecelia and Julian were so happy that I was going to be able to get it so that I’d be OK and I wouldn’t get sick,” he said. “They were like, ‘Grandpa, now you can come over again.’ I feel so grateful, so happy and so grateful. There’s a lot of people who don’t have it, and I feel very badly for them, but I’m grateful to get it.”

Denise Corrigan, MSSN’s director of quality management, administered the vaccine to Luisi. “We say we’re changing the world one arm at a time,” she said after.

The pilot program aims to vaccinate as many teachers and school staff members as possible to help facilitate a full return to school. It is a joint effort between MSSN and the Nassau County Department of Health. County Executive Laura Curran and the county’s health commissioner, Lawrence Eisenstein, signed off on setting aside specific doses of the vaccine for school staff members. The four school districts were then offered up to 75 appointments to designate to staff members. While the program is set to expand, individual teachers and staff cannot make appointments and must go through their school districts to register.

“We realize that as soon as we can get our teachers vaccinated, that ensures in-person education of all students of Nassau County,” MSSN Chief Medical Officer Dr. Adhi Sharma said. “We have children at home that are either in the hybrid model, or some kids aren’t allowed to go to school at all.  A lot of this is because of the difficulties of vaccinating people.”

Among the attendees at Friday’s news conference and vaccination session was Island Park Public Schools Superintendent Vincent Randazzo, who reflected on the difficulties of the past year and expressed his appreciation for the pilot program.

“Our district has come such a long way since last spring, and that’s thanks to our staff,” he said. “This vaccine gives our faculty and staff the reassurance that they need. Over the coming weeks, more students will be allowed back. This program will help us move forward and keep schools staffed so that we can safely move forward.”

Johanna Appel, who teaches third- through fifth-grade technology at Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School, was among the Island Park staff who received the vaccine. She said the past year has been “very hard,” and noted that communicating with colleagues and fostering a feeling of togetherness with students has been more difficult than usual with some learning remotely, others hybrid and others in-person full-time. The district has given all elementary students the option of returning to full-time in-person instruction and will soon phase in seventh- and eighth-graders at Lincoln Orens Middle School.

Appel said she felt comfort receiving her first shot.

“I definitely felt instant relief,” she said. “I feel a lot better and I’m excited to get back to normal, hopefully soon.”

The return to normal inched even closer when a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson was recently approved.  Sharma said only 3.9 million doses were distributed around the country, and it likely would not be readily available until April. Sharma added that MSSN plans to create a mobile vaccination bus, which will drive to churches, recreation centers and other places to administer vaccines to seniors and those with mobility issues who have difficulty getting around, or to anyone who has had trouble making an appointment.

The bus, which the hospital was receiving from North Carolina through CARES Act funds that were secured with the help of Hempstead Town Supervisor Don Clavin, was initially to be a testing bus, but hospital administrators decided it would be better suited for vaccinations. Sharma said the plan was to have the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on the bus because it is a one-shot vaccine.

For school staff like Luisi, Friday was a big step toward normalcy, and he said he appreciated how hard teachers have worked to adapt to a new normal.

“At Oceanside, teachers work so hard to help the kids and serve the kids,” he said. “They’ve been serving our kids so sincerely, so passionately, and we have to help the kids get through this so we can have regular learning so they can be as strong as possible.”