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COVID-19 Devastates Communities Of Color But Latino Teens Are Still Unsure About The Vaccine

A woman in a mask gives a teenage boy, also in a mask, a vaccine shot in his right arm.
Anthony Briseno, 20, receives his first Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine administered Medical Assistant Karina Cisneros from St. John's Well Child and Family Center at Abraham Lincoln High School.
AFP via Getty Images)
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News of the FDA’s authorization of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for children as young as 12 renewed focus on the effort to vaccinate teenagers. It has been almost a month since the vaccine was made available to all Californians 16 and older, and about a quarter of teenagers in L.A. have gotten vaccinated, but there is a clear racial divide: young Latino and Black Angelenos are lagging way behind in getting the shots.

COVID-19 Devastates Communities Of Color, But Latino Teens Still Unsure Of The Vaccine

“The lowest [vaccination] rates are among young Black and LatinX men and women, and it's among the 16-to-29 year olds that we have the most work to do,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the L.A. County Health Department.

“Given that those who remain unvaccinated are at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, we do need to work harder to ensure that there's good information, and easy access to vaccinations for our younger people,” Ferrer said at a recent press conference.

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Access has been the overriding focus of the vaccine campaign. There are more than 40 vaccination sites at LAUSD schools for students and their families. Mobile vaccine units and pop-up events are focusing on hard-hit areas, such as South L.A., and the vaccination rate has improved.

Now the challenge has shifted to convincing teens to get the shot.

COVID-19 Takes Lives But Vaccine Hesitancy Remains

For high school principal Cynthia Gonzalez, vaccines are the springboard to getting her students back in the classroom. When the pandemic forced schools to go online, she saw participation nosedive. More than half of the students at her South L.A. school stopped attending.

“Kids just stopped showing up, like en masse,” she said. “I have 500 kids, maybe 200 will show up a day to online learning.”

South L.A. had some of the highest COVID-19 case rates of anywhere in the county. Gonzalez said students dropped out of school to work full time at swap meets or in grocery stores to help with the bills.

“We had students losing family members... having to start working because they lost parents and now they have to help be head of household,” she said.

In April, when teenagers 16-and-over became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, Gonzalez thought her students and their families would jump at the chance. She helped coordinate a vaccination event, hoping to get more of her students back in the classroom.

They had a thousand doses but struggled to fill even half of the appointments. Gonzalez was surprised, and asked her students why they weren’t signing up for the free vaccine.

“That’s when I realized that either their parents told them not to, or they themselves were scared to get it, or there was a lot of misinformation about the vaccine itself,” she said.

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Gonzalez’s students are exactly who public health officials are trying to reach. Not only are young Latinos among the least vaccinated, data shows that if they get infected, Latinos are more likely to die from COVID-19.

An L.A. Timesanalysis found that in their age group, Latinos under 34 make up an astonishing 71% of deaths in California, even though they are only 45% of that group’s population. Crowded households and low wage jobs that put them in contact with a lot of people are thought to be the biggest contributing factors.

Ethnic Vaccine Breakdown 5/7/2021
(LA County Dept. of Public Health
LA County Dept. of Public Health)

TikTok And False Vaccine Rumors

Gonzalez has a student named Arturo who hasn’t been vaccinated. At 17 he needs his parent’s permission but his mom is concerned about side effects.

“She started seeing [how] other people... were getting allergic reactions, just on social media,” he said.

Arturo learned about COVID-19 vaccine reluctance from a different source.

“I heard from Joe Rogan, he’s a comedian. He creates a very entertaining podcast,” he said. “And so I heard from him and Dave Chappelle.”

In the April 23 episode of his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, the comedian told listeners that he would not suggest the vaccine to a healthy 21-year-old: "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well … I don't think you need to worry about this."

Rogan later clarified his comments but did not walk back his suggestion that young and healthy people do not “need” vaccines, reported the BBC.

Arturo still wants to get vaccinated so he can live in a dorm when he starts college next fall, and he is trying to convince his mom to give him permission for the shot.

“When I go to college, I'm still going to be 17, I'm not going to be an adult yet,” he said. “So that is kind of restricting me.”

A classmate named Natalia isn’t so sure. At 18, she doesn’t need parental consent but, after hearing wild conspiracy theories for months, she doesn’t know what to believe.

“I honestly don't know anything about vaccines,” she said. “I'm also just scared. And I want to be safe, especially with my health.”

Deportations under the Trump Administration left Natalia feeling alienated and distrustful of the government, including its vaccine information.

“At the borders, they would keep kids in cages and they wouldn't do anything about it,” she said. “That gets to me.”

Natalia has seen generic “get vaccinated” videos, but they haven’t convinced her. The videos didn’t answer her questions.

“Maybe if I heard from a doctor or someone that is trustworthy and someone I know, I'll probably be able to trust that person, and learn from them about the vaccines,” she said.

Schools Could Fill Conversation Void

College-bound students such as Natalia may be pushed into a decision. Many California colleges and universities will require on-campus students to be vaccinated. Natalia says if that’s the case, she’ll get the shots. A college education is more important to her than vaccine fears.

In principal Cynthia Gonzalez’s experience, parents are swayed by sensational stories on Spanish-language media, while students pay closer attention to false vaccine rumors on platforms such as TikTok.

“That’s what the kids are into, that and the YouTubers,” she said.

South L.A., where Gonzalez’s school is located, remains one of the least vaccinated areas in the county. Fewer than four in every 10 people have gotten a shot. Gonzalez believes schools need to be more hands-on and facilitate conversations about the vaccines with students and parents using accurate information.

“It has to be our role,” Gonzalez said. “It has to be part of what we do if we expect to close this equity gap at any point during this pandemic, and try to get our kids back to school like they are in other communities.”