WASHINGTON – Public health advocates who expect COVID-19 vaccines to become available for younger teens soon are concerned that a government-led distribution effort that may rely in large part on pediatricians could create glaring inequalities among children.
With only three months before the next school year starts in some areas, advocates are calling on the Biden administration to develop a more detailed outreach strategy, encourage schools to offer shots and provide more funding to get kids vaccinated.
Distributing vaccines to kids will likely present many of the same challenges that plagued the United States’ efforts to vaccinate adults, experts say, including issues with equity, access and skepticism. Kids’ dependence on adults adds another layer of complexity that could make vaccinating them even more difficult. But the Biden administration has not yet released a plan to get kids vaccinated, which public health experts call a problem.
“Vaccinating kids is going to look very different from vaccinating adults. They need a plan tailored to them that’s specific to them and to their needs,” said Averi Pakulis, vice president for early childhood and public health policy at the First Focus on Children advocacy group.
Experts anticipate the shot will be available to young teens in May or June. Those working on the ground are waiting to see formal guidance from the Biden administration.
“We have to start talking about it. Getting kids vaccinated, getting adolescents vaccinated is the next big frontier,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.
A central concern is how to ensure that minorities have opportunities to get vaccinated. The virus is already disproportionately hurting kids in communities of color. Black and Hispanic children under age 14 are both 3.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 compared with white children the same age, according to data from the COVKID Project.
Sara Bode, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health, said the AAP plans to soon release recommendations about setting up COVID-19 vaccination clinics in schools to reach more kids. These recommendations would be made in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You’re going to end up with school districts that have an 80 percent vaccination rate and school districts that have a 10 percent vaccination rate of their student population. And those same school districts that are at the 10 percent are likely the same districts that have struggled to get back to in-person learning,” Bode said, warning about what will happen if vaccines aren’t offered in schools.
Black and Hispanic adults are getting vaccinated at a lower rate than white adults, largely because it’s more difficult for them to access a vaccine, not because they are more likely to say no to the shot.