A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Teens in D.C. between the ages of 12 and 15 have been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine for over a month now, and racial and economic disparities have already started to emerge. This is unsurprising because these disparities exist among adult residents

Uneven vaccinations—a result of access issues and hesitancy that stem from inequity and mistreatment within the health care system—mean Black residents are getting sick and dying at greater rates than their Whiter counterparts nowadays. While the risk of hospitalization and death related to COVID-19 is low among children and teens, the risk is not zero. In rare cases, some can become very sick and have complications or long-lasting symptoms. (Public health officials also encourage young people to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus in the broader community and prevent the pathogen from mutating.) 

Uneven vaccinations among young people could also mean an uneven recovery. DC Health says fully vaccinated people no longer need to quarantine for 14 days after they are exposed to COVID-19. This would mean students who are not vaccinated and become exposed to COVID-19 would need to quarantine, thus requiring them to stay home and miss out on learning in-person. 

Students have already missed so much school because of the coronavirus. This upcoming school year, faculty hope to address learning loss by having students return to the classroom five days per week and placing some of them in one-on-one or small group tutoring. The goal next year is for students to return to a version of the life they had before the pandemic hit, or as officials like to say, a “better normal.” But the return to “normal” is only really possible for the fully vaccinated.     

What does the data say?

The racial and economic disparities among 12 to 15-year-olds became apparent in data recently shared with the Council from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. The ward with the highest percentage of teen vaccinations is a White-majority ward with some of the wealthiest households in the city. Meanwhile, the ward with the lowest percentage of vaccinations is a Black-majority ward with some of the poorest households.   

Ward 8, which has the lowest percentages of adolescents partially and fully vaccinated, is also home to 21 percent of D.C.’s minors, according to DC Kids Count.

The newly released data tracks with what the government’s vaccine data already says about race. DC Health’s data on vaccination by race is fairly incomplete, but what it does say is that shots among Black teens trail behind those among White teens. As of June 21, 11 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds who are Black are at least partially vaccinated, as compared to 48 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds who are White. Vaccination coverage is comparable among 16 to 17-year-olds, who have been eligible since mid-April

A spokesperson for Children’s National Hospital, the main provider DC Health partners with for vaccinations among young people, says they have inoculated 1,820 patients who are 12 to 15-years old. Of that group, 64 percent are at least partially vaccinated and awaiting their second shot. The spokesperson couldn’t provide a breakdown by ward for that age group. However, she did say that of their vaccinated patient population between the ages of 12 and 22, approximately 20 percent live in Wards 7 and 8. (Three-fourths of the patient population are D.C. residents, while the rest live in Maryland.) 

What to do about disparities in teen vaccinations? 

DC Health’s vaccine lead, Dr. Ankoor Shah, warned earlier this month that coverage among young residents of color is low. He mentioned that the government had just started targeting this demographic in May, so he is optimistic that vaccinations will pick up in the coming weeks and months.   

D.C. already has a relatively low compliance rate for routine immunizations among young people, according to the Post. This is despite the fact that local law requires children to receive immunizations against a number of infections, from diphtheria to the measles, in order to attend school. 

DC Public Schools are currently not requiring vaccination against COVID-19 in order to return to the classroom. At least one PreK–12 private school, Sidwell Friends, is requiring all employees and students over the age of 12 to be vaccinated in advance of the 2021–2022 school year. Vaccine policies at other private and public charter schools were not immediately available. (Local universities have been open about imposing mandates.) Instead, local officials are focused on making the vaccine as accessible as possible. DCPS partnered with DC Health and offered pop-up clinics at high school graduation ceremonies that are taking place this week on Audi Field. So far, only the graduations at five schools that took place on Monday had pop-up clinics because the four on Tuesday had to move to other locations or were postponed due to rain, says a DCPS spokesperson. DC Health also set up vaccine clinics in schools located in Wards 4, 5, 6, and 8. (Reminder: The COVID-19 vaccine is free, as well as effective and safe.)   

Ambrose Lane Jr., co-founder of Black Coalition Against COVID and founder of the Ward 7-based Health Alliance Network, says “when it comes to the 12 to 15 age group, they are going to be impacted by their parents. If their parents are hesitant, then they are likely going to be hesitant.” In D.C., minors over 11 years old can self-consent for vaccination. However, individual providers can require parental consent. The way Lane Jr. sees it‚ young people will still be influenced by their parents or guardians regardless of the law. Therefore, he sees the disparities in vaccinations among adult residents as impacting teens. 

Officials are trying to address disparities among adults: The mayor went door-knocking in Ward 8 with Dr. Fauci on Juneteenth, and the Bowser administration just started offering financial incentives at select vaccine sites including a $51 VISA gift card. It’s unclear if this will be enough to narrow the gap in coverage. Lane Jr. thinks the $51 VISA gift card is a good idea and laughed at the airline ticket giveaway. He suggested D.C. offer to cover college tuition as New York is doing to compel young people.  

“People underestimated the level of hesitancy that exists in the Black community,” adds Lane Jr. “This includes me. We really didn’t understand the mistrust and hesitancy that is in the Black community and we are finding that out now.” 

His groups are working to address hesitancy and mistrust. This week his groups are meeting with various faith-based and community-based organizations to whittle down messaging, so that everyone is communicating something similar. What the community is trying to do is solve decades of inequity in a matter of months, he says. Lane Jr. doesn’t think anything will move the needle like making the vaccine mandatory to attend school, which he supports.

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

This post has been updated to correct that at least one K-12 school in D.C. has a vaccine mandate.

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