It is difficult to track ethnic differences in children’s vaccinations
The release of COVID-19 footage of elementary-aged children has exposed another blind spot in the nation’s efforts to tackle pandemic inequality: Health systems have released little data about the racial breakdown of youth vaccinations, and community leaders fear that black and Latino children are too. lag behind.
Only a few states have published general data on COVID-19 vaccines by race and age, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t collect racial breakdowns either.
Despite the lack of challenging data, public health officials and medical professionals are aware of the disparities and reaching out to communities of color to overcome vaccine hesitation. This includes going to schools, sending messages in other languages, deploying mobile vaccine units and assuring skeptical parents that vaccines are powerfully safe and effective.
Public health leaders believe racial gaps are driven by labor and transportation barriers, as well as persistent reluctance and information gaps. Parents who do not have transportation will have more difficulty getting their children to and from appointments. Those without flexible work schedules or paid family leave may delay immunizing their children because they will not be able to stay home if children have to miss school with minor side effects.
In the few places that report COVID-19 vaccines for children by race, the breakdowns vary.
In Michigan, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C., white children were vaccinated at significantly higher rates than their black counterparts. But in New York City, white children ages 13 to 17 are being vaccinated at lower rates than black, Latino, and Asian children.
In Connecticut, vaccination rates for children ages 12-17 exceed 80% in many wealthy, predominantly white cities.
In Hartford, 39% of children ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated. Across the city line in the West Hartford suburb, 88% of children of the same age are fully vaccinated, according to state data updated in November.
The school system in Hartford is 80% black and Latino. West Hartford schools are 73% white.
On Monday morning, parents who drop off their children at a diverse elementary school in Hartford offered a glimpse into the differing opinions about childhood COVID-19 vaccinations. The school’s enrollment rate is over 75% Hispanic, Black, and Asian.
Some expressed a lack of confidence in vaccines and had no plans to vaccinate their children. Others were fully on board. One parent was initially skeptical, but said communications from the school had convinced him of the benefits of vaccinations for students, including ending personal learning disorders.
Ed Brown said his 9-year-old son will be vaccinated because the boy’s mother feels very strongly about him, although he still has some reservations. One of the results of the shot that became available to his son, Brown said, is that he will get the vaccination himself.
“I wouldn’t give my son something I didn’t know was safe,” said Brown, who is black.
Another mother, Zachary Colon, said she was determined not to vaccinate her children.
“I don’t feed my son,” she said. “I read that it got FDA approval very quickly. I’m afraid they don’t know enough about it.”
Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, principal 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 must take a negative test in order to return immediately.
This can become another barrier for some of our families. Some of our families, for a variety of reasons, don’t get the test, and so they have to wait seven to ten days. It certainly kept the students at home.”
In Washington, persistent reluctance in the black community was reflected in low vaccination rates among black teens. The latest figures provided by the District of Columbia Department of Health show that the full vaccination rate among black children ages 12 to 15 is just over half that of their white counterparts: 29 percent, compared to 54 percent.
During a recent event to promote the start of vaccinations for children at the age of five, Health Department Director Dr Laquandra Nisbet acknowledged that it had been difficult to overcome the hesitation despite months of public campaigns in the country’s capital.
“People should want to be vaccinated,” she said. “It is not always an access issue. It is an issue of choice.”
In Seattle, Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic has begun hosting mobile clinics, delivering vaccinations at home and providing information in a range of languages to reach families who may not have had a chance for their children. About 40% of the clinic’s patients are black, 30% speak a language other than English, while 70% use Medicaid.
The Chicago Department of Public Health plans to expand its home vaccination program to ages 5 and older starting this week. Both University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital and Loyola Medical Center West Chicago plan to send mobile pediatric vaccination units to underserved communities in the coming days.
The White House has made health equity a top priority, and the coronavirus task force said last week that the country had closed the racial gap between the total population of 194 million people who have been fully vaccinated. The Biden administration also said it is spending nearly $800 million to support organizations seeking to expand confidence in the vaccine among American communities of color and low-income people.
Dr. George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said federal, state and local systems to track public health data remain limited and underfunded, including data for tracking racial disparities in childhood vaccines.
“We haven’t invested in the data system that we absolutely need for public health,” Benjamin said. “This is the fundamental failure of this system.”
Without big numbers about who will get the shot, it’s hard to know what disparities might exist, said Samantha Artega, director of the Racial Equality and Health Policy Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“The data is key to getting a full picture and understanding where the disparities are,” Artega said. “They can be used to focus efforts and resources and then measure progress in addressing them over time.”
Associated Press data journalist Angel Castanes and writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.
Ma covers education and equity for the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15
The Associated Press’s reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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