Teenagers in many of the cities and towns hardest hit by COVID-19 are getting vaccinated at alarmingly low rates, according to an analysis from a Harvard University researcher, raising concerns there could be a fresh surge in infections as schools open for in-person classes across Massachusetts.
The analysis, which focused on 42 communities that have had some of the state’s highest infection rates through most of the pandemic, found that 37 of them recorded teen vaccination rates lower, and in some cases dramatically lower, than the state average for teens.
Just 38 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds in New Bedford had received their first COVID shot by Sept. 2, and the rate for those 16 to 19 wasn’t much better: just 44 percent. Holyoke and Springfield reported similarly low vaccination rates. In Boston, older teens are the main concern — fewer than half of 16- to 19-year-olds had gotten at least one shot.
The lowest rates of all were among children 12 to 15 years old, still too young to make their own health care decisions. Just five of the 42 communities Harvard researcher Alan Geller focused on had vaccination rates for this age group that were above the state average of 68 percent.
“If we don’t get this right, how are we going to do it with the 5- to 11-year-olds when they are authorized for a vaccine?” said Geller, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the author of the analysis. “Unfortunately, this may be a barometer of where we will go” with the younger children.
Minnah Sheikh, a student leader in Revere, said even reluctant teens can be persuaded to get their shots — if they feel like they’ve been listened to and their concerns about the vaccine validated.
Sheikh, now a college freshman, said she tells her peers, “If we want to come out of this, not only protect ourselves and our loved ones, but to have a brighter tomorrow, it’s really about getting our shots.”
Massachusetts has achieved the second highest vaccination rate in the country, behind Vermont, for people 12 and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that figure masks the reality that many Massachusetts communities and their school districts are still far below the state average, Geller said.
“It’s a tale of two states, when we have so many cities whose rate is at 90 percent, but so many that are 50 percent,” he said.
A quarter of new COVID infections in Massachusetts are now reported in people under 20, according to the state’s latest data. And with the wildly contagious Delta strain of the virus showing few signs of easing, school leaders in Massachusetts and across the country are on guard as students return to classrooms, most for the first time in 18 months.
President Biden’s new executive orders, issued Thursday, mandate COVID vaccinations for millions of adults, but stopped short of requiring the shots for eligible school students. However, school districts are starting to consider their own vaccination requirements.
In Los Angeles, the board of education for the nation’s second-largest school district made it official, voting Thursday to require students 12 and older to be vaccinated against the coronavirus if they attend in-person classes. The vote makes Los Angeles the largest among a very small number of districts nationwide to mandate the shots.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the Amherst Board of Health voted unanimously Thursday to add federally approved COVID vaccines to the list of childhood shots already required for students to attend public school in Massachusetts. Federal regulators authorized use of the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12 more than four months ago, in early May.
Geller’s analysis shows a generally higher vaccination rate for older teens, ages 16 to 19, a group that has had wide access to the shots in Massachusetts since April — three weeks longer than the 12-to-15 age group. Geller found that among 16- to 19-year-olds, slightly more than one-third of the hard-hit communities met or exceeded the state vaccination average of 70 percent for the age group.
Education and public health leaders who reviewed Geller’s analysis said the findings indicate several communities have made small but notable progress with student vaccinations since June. But for too many, they said, there is still far to go.
“It’s very discouraging, it really is,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Educators understand that student safety is the number one priority every day. How is it that the rest of the public doesn’t get it? We don’t understand it.”
Scott and others said they are unsure why older teens have a higher vaccination rate. But Scott said it may be that older teens have more independence in decision-making.
“They certainly have more access to vehicles and the ability to travel to get a vaccination,” he said. “Some of it may well be they’re making their own personal choices, whereas [with] 12- to 15-year-olds, the parents have more control.”
Hoping to increase teen vaccination rates, the Baker administration in late August announced it will work with at least 100 school districts to set up school-based vaccination clinics this fall.
“If you can get the kids interested, maybe in some cases they can get their parents to come get vaccinated as well,” Governor Charlie Baker said at the opening of a school clinic at Everett High School.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said Baker’s approach, urging families to get vaccinated, is laudable. But given the low numbers in many communities, Koocher said a mandate should be considered.
“I think the governor and the [education] commissioner need to push harder on the vaccination question,” Koocher said.
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has already endorsed mandatory shots.
“Our board of directors ... in early August voted 46 to 4 to support mandated vaccination of all school employees, and all children who are eligible, but with accommodations and exemptions, and with paid sick leave to get vaccinated,” said Merrie Najimy, the association’s president.
In New Bedford, where the percentage of residents testing positive is twice the state average and COVID vaccination rates for children and adults remain well below average, city leaders are in overdrive.
“We are like Velcro now, trying to be sticky,” said the public health director, Damon Chaplin, who described the city’s push to bring the vaccine to parks and to any family event, urging people to get their shots. He said city leaders unsuccessfully begged the state for more shots in early spring, before fears over reports of rare blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson shot damaged the trust they had established in the community
“We had a small window of trust and need, where people were ready to get the vaccine, and we missed that window,” Chaplin said. “It’s irrational, but for the community, it validated their concerns.”
But vaccine hesitance can be overcome as a few hard-hit communities are demonstrating.
In Revere, one of the cities hammered early on in the pandemic, 75 percent of 12- to-15-year-olds had received at least one shot by Sept. 2, along with 80 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds.
Dimple Rana, director of Revere’s community health and engagement, said their success is tied to their early strategy of tapping teens with large social media followings who helped design messages and even advised on the best times to post those missives. The teens pumped out Instagram messages six weeks before graduation last spring, urging classmates to get their first dose, so they could be fully vaccinated — allowing for in-person graduation and after-parties.
Sheikh was one of the teen leaders. The popular student, who was both an athlete and a member of the executive board of the student senate, said a lot of the work she did was simply listening to her peers and validating their emotions.
She was stunned to see so many of her friends show up for their shots after the Instagram vaccination campaign. She stood in line with some who were tearful and scared and reminded them of how much the pandemic had taken from them — from canceled proms to lost jobs. This, she told them, was a way for students to help return life back to more normal.
“It’s not often young people get a seat at the table,” she said. “And this was our way to kind of fix things.”