What LA County Is Doing To Close A Wide Gap In Kids Getting COVID Vaccines
The coronavirus vaccine has now been available to children ages 5 to 11 years old for nearly two months. In L.A. County, so far at least 13% of children in that group now have two shots and are considered fully vaccinated.
But public health officials are concerned that the number of families seeking first shots for children is dropping.
“This decline is not really what we hope to see as we go into a time where children are out of school and gathering with many others,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer at a news conference last week.
It's particularly troubling because there already are some stark socioeconomic disparities in who has gotten vaccinated and who has not. If that doesn't change, the gap will only grow.
Public health experts say vaccines are the best way to reduce the risk of getting infected and to reduce serious illness if you do get COVID. The surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron coronavirus variant has only made that message more urgent.
“We believe that if we are vaccinated and our son has the opportunity, then he should be vaccinated as well,” said Maricia Cole at a recent Pasadena vaccination clinic where her 5-year-old son was getting his second dose. “We want it to be safe ourselves and also help others to stay safe.”
Cole and her family fall into the 27% of parents of kids 5 to 11 eager to get their children vaccinated, identified in a national survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation this fall.
“We're now moving into the, the wait-and-see group and the group that said, ‘No, we're not interested in having our child vaccinated,’” said Timothy Brewer, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA.
The Kaiser survey found those categories accounted for 33% and 30% respectively.
What We Know About LA County Vaccination Rates For Kids
One major indicator appears to be affluence. Brewer and I scan a color-coded vaccine map of child vaccination rates in L.A. County and see that more than half of kids 5-11 have been vaccinated in cities including La Cañada, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Palos Verdes Estates, San Marino and South Pasadena.
The county’s data also shows Latino kids 5 to 11, which account for the largest share of this population, are the least likely to be fully vaccinated at 5.2%, followed by Black kids at 6.3%. White (21.6%) , Asian (26.3%) and American Indian children (19%) in this group all exceed the county’s overall vaccination rate for this group.
Another way to look at the vaccine data is by school district.
“I think part of what you're seeing is the smaller districts with higher incomes, and probably fewer people of color tend to have higher vaccination rates,” Brewer said. “Large inner city districts [are] more likely to have people who are socioeconomically challenged and face more obstacles to getting vaccinated or getting health care in general.”
The Message To Reluctant Families
Federal health officials authorized emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine after evaluating data showing it was 90.7% effective at preventing COVID-19 and safe for kids 5-11.
“The choice is between protecting your kid against COVID with a safe and effective vaccine, or leaving them at risk to get a disease that's potentially harmful,” said Pasadena Public Health Department Director Dr. Ying-Ying Goh. “And I think that when you look at that choice through that lens, then you realize that the choice is clear.”
It remains to be seen whether this message has reached all L.A. parents and if it has, whether they’ve been able to easily access the vaccine.
“There's so much more misinformation, and disinformation out there than positive information,” said St. John’s Community Health president and CEO Jim Mangia. “We're kind of constantly, you know, rolling that rock up the hill in order to educate people about the importance of COVID vaccination.”
The South L.A. healthcare provider has partnered with the Compton Unified School District for almost a year to first vaccinate adults, and now kids, at on-campus clinics. Mangia said they’re vaccinating up to 100 children a day in the district, but its vaccination rate still lags the county’s overall with 4.7% of students 5-11 fully vaccinated.
Health officials are turning to schools, even children’s museums, to get the word out about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy and donate space for kids to get the shot.
The choice is between protecting your kid against COVID with a safe and effective vaccine, or leaving them at risk to get a disease that's potentially harmful.
“We really believe that the longer we're out there, the more persistent we are, the more education we do, the more dialogues we have, the more people are going to get vaccinated,” Mangia said.
Making It Easier On Kids
To get to the vaccination clinic at Pasadena’s Kidspace Children’s Museum, families walk through a tunnel filled with colorful mosaic tiles, the sounds of chimes and chirping birds.
"Anything that is good for children intellectually, emotionally or physically, is something that we want to be a part of,” said museum CEO Lisa Clements. “We were really pleased to be able to offer kids a joyful experience so that it wasn't just scary.”
Inside a room divided by partitions, 6-year-old Noah popped his left arm out of a Santa sweater, picked out a bandage (white with colorful triangles over beige) and received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine without a single tear. The whole process took about 5 minutes. His dad Jonathan Lui let out a jubilant whoop.
“I'm stoked for him,” Lui said, sitting outside while Noah ran through the museum’s grounds with other newly vaccinated kids.
“During the pandemic, we were stuck at home,” Lui said. “From a family that's always outside, it was tough to just be a homebody.”
Lui said after talking to their pediatrician — Noah has asthma and a few other underlying issues — the vaccine was a “no brainer.” He and his wife are both vaccinated, though they have two younger children who aren’t yet eligible for the shot.
“I think we as human[s] need to all do our part to keep other people safe,” Lui said. “Not just yourself, but you know, the elderly, your parents, your grandparents.”
Stressing The Connection Between Vaccination And Keeping Kids In Classrooms
In the San Gabriel Valley’s Mountain View School District most kids receive a free or reduced-price lunch and more than half are English language learners.
Outgoing superintendent Lillian Maldonado French said that before the district got them online during the pandemic, more than half of El Monte and South El Monte families they serve didn’t have the internet in their homes.
“One of the biggest challenges our families had was just navigating all the forms that you have to fill out online,” French said. “It's very difficult to try and do that on your phone.”
The district hosts on-site vaccine clinics with staff available to guide families through registration. The most recent one was Dec. 11, on the same day as the annual menudo breakfast. (“It is truly the best menudo you'll ever taste,” French claimed with a smile.) There have been multilingual webinars with health experts. The district’s digital newsletter shares the latest information about COVID-19.
A parent task force informed the district’s vaccine outreach from the beginning. A few even volunteered to record testimonials.
“I’m so proud of them,” French said, beaming after we watched one of the videos together. “They're becoming the leaders.”
Still, the Mountain View district’s full vaccination rate is just 5.5%, less than half the county average.
Unvaccinated students risk falling even further behind in school because they have to quarantine at home after a COVID-19 exposure. A vaccinated student that tests negative is cleared to continue attending school in person, according to the county’s guidance.
“We know that students need that extra care and support,” French said. “So we want to keep kids in school. That's our number one goal.”