Tens of thousands of the state’s 12- to 15-year-olds have gotten their first shots of the Pfizer vaccine since it was approved for their age group last week, new state data show.
But the numbers reveal very uneven uptake across the state, with some communities reporting roughly half of their young teens already receiving a first shot, while others have managed just three or four percent.
The department said in its weekly vaccination report that 16 percent of an estimated 322,219 people in the age group, or around 51,000 adolescents, have received a first shot.
“This is an excellent start reflecting that a now well-established infrastructure can readily serve yet another eligible age group,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a former Massachusetts health commissioner and a former US assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.
“I expect the numbers in this category to rise rapidly to soon make vaccination the norm, not the exception, as seen in the older groups,” Koh, now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an e-mail.
Massachusetts is a national leader in the proportion of its population vaccinated: Nearly nine out of 10 people aged 65 and over have received at least one shot.
The percentage of young teens who’ve been vaccinated is far lower, but Pfizer’s vaccine was only approved for use on children 12 to 15 on May 12.
“This is a remarkable proportion in only the first week of vaccine approval for this age group,” said state health spokeswoman Ann Scales.
A handful of communities, such as Northampton, report at least half of their children aged 12 to 15 received their first shot. But the percentage is in the single digits in many other communities with lower overall vaccination rates among all age groups, such as in Lawrence and New Bedford. Just 4 percent of young teens in New Bedford have received the first shot. In Lawrence, it’s 3 percent.
Access to the vaccine continues to be a significant factor, say public health leaders. When the state health department shut off doses earlier this year to many cities and towns in favor of mass vaccination sites and community health centers, communities scrambled to find other ways to vaccinate their residents.
The ones that were able to form partnerships with pharmacies or larger medical groups, which had more ready access to vaccines, set up local clinics and greatly boosted their numbers, health leaders said.
For instance, just 9 percent of young teens are vaccinated in Weymouth, which has been unable to hold its own local clinics. But that is about to change.
“We were informed by the school district yesterday that Brewster Ambulance will be at the high school on June 7th to hold clinics for 12+ and their families as needed,” Daniel McCormack, Weymouth’s health director said in an e-mail. “This clinic should greatly increase our vaccination rate in 12+.”
In Needham, roughly 15 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds have gotten a shot, slightly less than the state average.
The town recently partnered with a nearby pharmacy to bring shots into their Pollard Middle School, and hundreds of youngsters were vaccinated at the first clinic last weekend, said Timothy McDonald, Needham’s health director. Another school clinic is scheduled this weekend.
“We are a little behind, [with 12- to 15-year-olds] but I think we will catch up,” said McDonald, whose town has done exceptionally well with other age groups, with at least 87 percent of people 16 and older having received at least one shot.
Next door, in Newton, 46 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds have received their first shots, three times higher than in Needham.
One key difference is that Newton early on was able to partner with a medical group and has held regular clinics for residents. The city has a youth clinic scheduled for this weekend that is already booked solid.
“We have a community that really values science. They got vaccinated when they were eligible and they are vaccinating their children when they become eligible, too,” said Deborah Youngblood, Newton’s health and human services commissioner.
One other key difference, Youngblood said, is Newton’s unusual model that has school nurses working directly for the city’s health department, not for the school department.
“It makes this seamless coordinated effort between public health and school health and we find that to be a robust way to serve our families,” she said.
Dr. David Hamer, a physician at Boston Medical Center and a Boston University epidemiologist, said the state, overall, has gotten off to an impressive start with young teens.
“Getting teenagers in for the vaccine is a bit of a challenge,” he said, noting they may have to fit appointments into the after-school hours and may need parents’ help to get to appointments.
“I can’t predict, but I think there’s a lot of interest,” he said. “I think it will go pretty quickly until” only the 10 to 30 percent with serious vaccine concerns remain unvaccinated.