In some DC neighborhoods, COVID-19 vaccination rates among teens lag behind

COVID-19 vaccination rates among teenagers vary across D.C.’s eight wards, a disparity that has some officials concerned about this fall’s return to schools and the possibility of outbreaks, as the more easily transmissible delta variant spreads.

Data from the city’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education revealed at least 60% of kids ages 12-15 in Wards 2 and 3 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Wards 7 and 8, however, fewer than 10% of kids in the same age group have received at least one dose.

The coronavirus vaccines received emergency use authorization for that age group more than a month ago. Ward 4 council member Janeese Lewis George requested the data and said she plans to continue tracking it.

The discrepancy highlights a lack of vaccine uptake in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, reflecting the need for communities across the country to improve their “ground game,” said Elizabeth Stuart, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Last weekend, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, went door to door in Ward 8 to do just that. And although D.C. recently surpassed 70% of adults receiving at least one dose, and has offered incentives ranging from Visa gift cards to Nationals tickets, more localized outreach campaigns to target the city’s youth are necessary, officials say.

“Each person is going to be sort of in a different place, mentally, physically, access wise,” Stuart said. “It sounds hard, and it is going to be hard, but we’re at a stage of the pandemic where we’re going to have to sort of tailor this and really understand where people are and where they’re coming from.”

A source close to the D.C. Council told WTOP the newly released data is troublesome for students as they plan to return to school in the fall. In May, D.C. Public Schools said it will welcome all students back to classrooms for in-person learning five days week, while also promising a “limited virtual offering” for those who aren’t ready to return.

The school system also said it doesn’t anticipate requiring vaccination for students who are old enough to be eligible.

But DC Health guidelines call for unvaccinated people who are exposed to the coronavirus to quarantine, meaning students in wards with lower vaccination rates may be more likely to miss school.

To decrease the likelihood of that scenario, lawmakers are calling on DC Health and the mayor’s office to increase accessibility. The source said the city should offer the vaccine at popular summer destinations, such as pools and recreation centers. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson agrees.

The mayor’s office didn’t respond to an email asking whether such plans were in the works.

Mendelson called the data concerning, noting the city needs to do more to increase uptake.

“This is a national issue as well as a local issue,” Mendelson told WTOP. “And it may be that there are some celebrities who would be particularly appealing to younger folks as a strategy.”

“What the government needs to do is look at ways to minimize cost,” he said. “[The city needs to] look at other ways that we can get the vaccine as easily as possible, that is with a minimal cost — in time, transportation, effort — in every way, minimal cost.”

While D.C.’s data dashboard shows a nominal difference in vaccination rates by race — 31.6% of white residents, 24.9% of Black residents, and 33.1% of Asian or Pacific Islander residents are fully vaccinated — the differences are stark among kids 12-15. More than 3,200 white teenagers 12-15 have been fully vaccinated; that figure is 1,564 for Black kids and 295 for Asian or Pacific Islander.

At-large council member Christina Henderson said in a Twitter response to a Washington City Paper report that she thinks pediatricians will be key in improving those figures, hoping to have doctors communicate the benefits to kids and parents.

To improve trust, some D.C.-area barbershops are offering incentives to encourage vaccination.

But nonetheless, Stuart said understanding the barriers will be essential to improving those metrics.

“How can we make sure that we make this as easy as possible for people and get them within community health centers, or schools, [and] also trusted partners,” Stuart said. “This is going to be a key time to, again, really just engage deeply in the communities that have lower rates and work with the community partners to understand what’s happening, and then really try to increase uptake.”

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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