Student Well-Being

Racial Disparities in Kids’ Vaccinations Are Hard to Track

By The Associated Press — November 15, 2021 5 min read
Cameron West, 9, receives a COVID-19 vaccination at Englewood Health in Englewood, N.J., Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Health systems have released little data on the racial breakdown of youth vaccinations, and community leaders fear that Black and Latino kids are falling behind.
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The rollout of COVID-19 shots for elementary-age children has exposed another blind spot in the nation’s efforts to address pandemic inequalities: Health systems have released little data on the racial breakdown of youth vaccinations, and community leaders fear that Black and Latino kids are falling behind.

Only a handful of states have made public data on COVID-19 vaccinations by race and age, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not compile racial breakdowns either.

Despite the lack of hard data, public health officials and medical professionals are mindful of disparities and have been reaching out to communities of color to overcome vaccine hesitancy. That includes going into schools, messaging in other languages, deploying mobile vaccine units and emphasizing to skeptical parents that the shots are safe and powerfully effective.

Public health leaders believe racial gaps are driven by work and transportation barriers, as well as lingering reluctance and information gaps. Parents who do not have transportation will have a harder time getting their children to and from appointments. Those who do not have flexible work schedules or paid family leave may delay vaccinating their kids because they will not be able to stay home if the children have to miss school with minor side effects.

In the few places that do report child COVID-19 vaccines by race, the breakdowns vary.

In Michigan, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., white children got vaccinated at much higher rates than their Black counterparts. But in New York City, white children between 13 and 17 are vaccinated at lower rates than Black, Latino and Asian kids.

In Connecticut, vaccination rates for 12- to 17-year-olds in many wealthy, predominantly white towns exceed 80 percent.

In Hartford, 39 percent of children between 12 and 17 are fully vaccinated. Across the city line in the suburb of West Hartford, 88 percent of children the same age are fully vaccinated, according to state data updated in November.

Hartford’s school system is 80 percent Black and Latino. West Hartford’s schools are 73 percent white.

On Monday morning, parents who dropped off their children at a diverse Hartford elementary school provided a glimpse into the various opinions around child COVID-19 vaccinations. The school’s enrollment is more than 75 percent Latino, Black and Asian.

Some expressed mistrust of the vaccines and had no plans to get their children vaccinated. Others were completely on board. One father was skeptical at first, but said communications from the school persuaded him of the benefits of vaccinations for students, including an end to the disruptions to in-person learning.

Ed Brown said his 9-year-old son will be vaccinated because the boy’s mother feels strongly about it, even though he still has some reservations. One result of the shot becoming available for his son, Brown said, is that he will get vaccinated himself.

“I will not give my son something I don’t know is safe,” said Brown, who is Black.

Another parent, Zachary Colon, said she was determined not to have her children vaccinated.

“I’m not vaccinating my son,” she said. “I read it got FDA approval really quickly. I’m afraid they don’t know enough about it.”

Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, the superintendent of Hartford schools, said the low vaccination rate among her students means more of them end up missing school.

If vaccinated students are exposed to infected people, they can come to school as long as they are not showing symptoms. Unvaccinated students have to test negative in order to return immediately.

“That can become another barrier for some of our families. Some of our families, for a variety of reasons, they don’t get the test, and so they have to wait out the seven to 10 days. And so absolutely, it has kept students home,” she said.

People have to want to be vaccinated. It’s not always an access issue. It’s a choice issue.

In Washington, lingering reluctance in the Black community has been mirrored in low vaccination rates among Black adolescents. The most recent numbers provided by the District of Columbia Department of Health show that the rate of full vaccination among Black children between 12 and 15 is just over half that of their white counterparts: 29 percent compared with 54 percent.

During a recent event to promote the start of vaccinations for children as young as age 5, Health Department Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt acknowledged that reluctance has been difficult to overcome despite months of public campaigning in the nation’s capital.

“People have to want to be vaccinated,” she said. “It’s not always an access issue. It’s a choice issue.”

In Seattle, the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic began hosting mobile clinics, offering in-home vaccinations and providing information in an array of languages to reach families who might otherwise not have gotten a shot for their kids. About 40 percent of the clinic’s patients are Black and 30 percent speak a language other than English, while 70 percent are on Medicaid.

Chicago’s public health department planned to expand its in-home vaccination program to ages 5 and up starting this week. Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago and the Loyola Medicine center west of Chicago both planned to send mobile pediatric vaccination units into underserved communities in the coming days.

The White House has made health equity a top priority, and its coronavirus task force said last week that the country has closed the racial gap among the overall population of 194 million people who are fully vaccinated. The Biden administration also said it is spending nearly $800 million to support organizations that seek to broaden vaccine confidence among communities of color and low-income Americans.

But federal, state and local systems for tracking public health data are still limited and underfunded, including tracking data for racial disparities in child vaccines, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“We’ve not invested in the data system that we absolutely need to have for public health,” Benjamin said. “That is the fundamental failure of this system.”

Without widespread numbers on who is getting the shot, it’s difficult to know what disparities may exist, said Samantha Artiga, director of the racial equity and health policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Data are key for getting a complete picture and understanding where disparities are present,” Artiga said. “They can be used to focus efforts and resources and then measure progress to addressing them over time.”

Kids & the COVID-19 Vaccine: Must-Reads

Looking for more information on COVID-19 vaccinations and kids? Browse this curated list of news, advice, and more, broken down by topic. For the latest, view Education Week’s ongoing vaccine coverage.

The Latest

Student Well-Being Kids and COVID-19 Vaccines: The Latest News
April 13, 2021
29 min read

Vaccine Administration

Ticket number 937 sits on a COVID-19 vaccination at the drive-thru vaccination site in the Coweta County Fairgrounds on Jan. 14, 2021, in Newnan, Ga.
A ticket number sits on a COVID-19 vaccination at the drive-thru vaccination site in the Coweta County Fairgrounds in Newnan, Ga.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP
Federal White House Outlines COVID-19 Vaccination Plans for Kids 5-11
Evie Blad, October 20, 2021
3 min read
Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student at Topeka West, gets a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Aug. 9, 2021 at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
Cole Rodriguez, a 15-year-old student, gets a COVID-19 vaccine at Topeka High School's vaccine clinic.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP

Communicating About the Vaccine

Image of a stethescope, teddy bear, and vaccine syringe.
Milena Khosroshvili/iStock/Getty
Cheryl Watson-Harris, superintendent of the DeKalb County School District in DeKalb, Ga.
Cheryl Watson-Harris, superintendent of the DeKalb County School District in Georgia.
Dustin Chambers for Education Week
Corey Ruth, a student at McDonogh 35 high school in Louisiana, was unsure of getting the COVID-19 vaccine until his athletic trainer talked to him about it.
Corey Ruth, a student at McDonogh 35 high school in Louisiana, was unsure about getting the COVID-19 vaccine until his athletic trainer talked to him.
Harlin Miller for Education Week

Vaccine Mandates

Opponents of legislation that tightened  rules on exemptions for vaccinations demonstrate outside the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, Calif., in Sept. 2019. Medical exemptions in California more than tripled in the three years after they became the only allowable reason for a student to be unvaccinated.
Opponents of legislation that tightened rules on exemptions for vaccinations demonstrate outside the office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, Calif., in Sept. 2019.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
States How Vaccine Loopholes Could Weaken COVID Shot Mandates for Kids
Evie Blad, September 28, 2021
9 min read
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena on May 14, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif.
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena last spring in Pasadena, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Lessons From History

In this April 1955 file photo, first and second-graders at St. Vibiana's school are inoculated against polio with the Salk vaccine in Los Angeles. Tens of millions of today's older Americans lived through the polio epidemic, their childhood summers dominated by concern about the virus. Some parents banned their kids from public swimming pools and neighborhood playgrounds and avoided large gatherings. Some of those from the polio era are sharing their memories with today's youngsters as a lesson of hope for the battle against COVID-19. Soon after polio vaccines became widely available, U.S. cases and death tolls plummeted to hundreds a year, then dozens in the 1960s, and to U.S. eradication in 1979.
In this April 1955 file photo, 1st and 2nd graders are inoculated against polio with the Salk vaccine in Los Angeles.
AP

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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