On their second day of school, Ipswich High School students received an e-mail from the vice principal about a mysterious vaping-related illness striking young people across the country. In Needham, the unsettling topic was discussed in morning announcements.
But during the second week of school in Boston and Chelsea, superintendents were still formulating the best approach for alerting students and parents.
Amid a cascade of federal warnings and media coverage of the illness, there has been no consistent effort from schools across Massachusetts to inform students and parents about this potentially life-threatening scourge. While some school officials have jumped to attention and rapidly deployed one of the many tools at their disposal to alert students and parents about the imminent danger of vaping, others have essentially ignored the news. The information teens received from their schools depended on random decisions by districts or individual administrators.
The delay — or failure — to take action in some districts is frustrating public health specialists, who say they too often see disparities in health care and information by ZIP code.
“These are pretty straightforward health messages that don’t need sophisticated science to get the word out,” said Dr. David Christiani, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health.
“Parents probably won’t be reading the [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] website,” he said, “but they will read the school’s advisory sent home.”
On Thursday, federal health officials who are investigating the outbreak said they are “in desperate need of facts and answers” as the number of new cases keeps climbing.
The CDC said vaping-related illnesses have now been linked to at least seven deaths, with 530 people sickened nationwide. Massachusetts officials report at least 38 cases , including seven teens hospitalized at Boston Children’s Hospital.
A majority of those sickened nationwide are under age 25 — perhaps not surprising, given the prevalence of youth vaping.
In interviews, harried Massachusetts school officials from districts large and small said the timing of the vaping crisis caught them while they were already slammed with the opening of classes and the heavy administrative workload involved.
“It’s not something on the top of everybody’s to-do list,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “They are trying to get the transportation systems worked out, and deal with everything else schools, and principals, and teachers have to do at the start of the school year.”
And this year, school officials in many Massachusetts cities and towns have also had another public health scare to contend with: Eastern equine encephalitis, the deadly mosquito-borne virus that’s already infected nine residents, including a 5-year-old girl. For dozens of communities with high threat levels, EEE has seemed more pressing and vexing, as administrators have scrambled to reschedule outdoor evening events.
Most schools in the past few years have taken steps to stop kids from vaping, such as incorporating information in health classes about substance abuse, creating videos, and installing vaping detectors in bathrooms.
But administrators acknowledge that being nimble enough to address the emerging crisis has been challenging.
“A lot of this is rapidly changing, and we are trying to stay ahead of this,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Even as schools have ramped up anti-vaping efforts in recent years, the number of teens who have taken up vaping has continued to explode. New preliminary data released last week from the 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey showed nearly 28 percent of teens reported using e-cigarettes, up from 21 percent last year.
Interviews with teens from a half-dozen Massachusetts school districts found a few who said they had even tried e-cigarettes or other vaping products. But just about all said their knowledge of the latest vaping-related illness was gleaned not from their schools, but from social media sites, such as Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok.
“People post about it, and it spreads like a virus,” said Robert, a 17-year-old senior at Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical School, who first heard about the epidemic on Snapchat. Like most of the teens interviewed, he declined to give his full name.
A 16-year-old junior from Beverly High School, who was sitting in the food court of the Northshore Mall with her mother, said she also couldn’t remember receiving any notice from her school.
The teen’s mother, a middle-school teacher at a nearby district, said the school where she works didn’t send any communications out about the illness, except to remind students at the start of classes that vaping is not allowed on school grounds.
Sitting nearby was Lynne Leonard, whose two daughters attend Ipswich High School. All three nodded vigorously when asked whether the school had communicated about the latest illness.
“Since the beginning of school, they printed out news articles and posted them in the cafeteria and in the hallways,” said Maddison Tuttle, 17, an Ipswich senior. “They talked about it in the morning announcements.”
Some districts are just beginning to alert parents now.
“I wanted to make sure we introduced it to students and staff first,” said Jim Hanna, principal of Plymouth South High School, who said he plans to send an e-mail to parents this week. He said he has also encouraged teachers to discuss the latest news about vaping deaths and illness in regular small-group meetings they have with students twice a week.
But even among parents in districts that have raced to alert students and parents about vaping-related illness, confusion persists. Dr. Hasmeena Kathuria, the mother of two Needham High School students, said she was relieved the school brought up the topic for students when classes first started.
But Kathuria, an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and a lung specialist at Boston Medical Center, said some parents seem ill-informed.
“When I hear people from my town talk that it’s all THC [marijuana]-related, and as long as my child is not doing THC, they should be fine — that’s my concern,” she said.
Federal health officials who are studying affected patients say it has struck people who vaped cannabis, nicotine, or both, and who used both legal and black-market products.
Vaporizers typically use metal coils to heat oils or liquids into vapor to be inhaled.
To her dismay, Kathuria also has heard some anxious adult patients who took up vaping to help quit traditional cigarettes say they think smoking might be safer, and might take up that habit again.
Now, Kathuria worries that teens addicted to nicotine through vaping might reach the same conclusion — which would be a terrible irony, given the plummeting youth smoking rates after years of education by public health specialists.
“How are we going to manage this so all the efforts we had to get our tobacco rates down do not surge up again?” she said.