With the world laser-focused on a worrisome new variant, there is an urgent push to vaccinate as many people as possible. But many Massachusetts communities that have struggled with high rates of COVID-19 are reporting among the lowest vaccination rates for young children.
More than three weeks after federal regulators authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11, the latest state and Boston data show wide disparities, even among communities that sit side by side. The large gaps often are found between low-income and wealthier communities but are equally dramatic among racial and ethnic groups. Community leaders say they continue to confront large swaths of hesitation and anxiety about the shots, fueled by rampant misinformation on social media and, among some communities of color, a lack of faith in government institutions and the medical community after years of neglect and exploitation.
“The disparities are stark,” said Dr. Jonathan Levy, who chairs the department of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “Vaccines and boosters are certainly likely to be helpful against Omicron as they are against Delta, so getting people vaccinated remains a high priority.”
In Jamaica Plain, a wealthier neighborhood near Boston’s western edge, 57 percent of youngsters have received their first shot. In neighboring Roxbury, a largely Black and Hispanic community with household income roughly half Boston’s median, just 13 percent have been vaccinated, according to city data.
Right outside the city, in Milton, a largely white, higher-income community, 56 percent of children have had their first shot. But next door in Mattapan, a neighborhood that is predominantly Black and Hispanic, just 6 percent have been vaccinated. Similarly, first shots have been administered to 65 percent of 5-to-11-year-olds in Melrose, but to only 18 percent in Malden, right over the border.
Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said some community health centers, which provide vital care in many lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, are struggling with staffing issues, similar to the worker shortages at many health care facilities as the pandemic drags on, and that’s complicating the push to get shots to younger children.
“We have to provide publicly available clinics so people feel there are more options out there for them,” Ojikutu said. “We need more clinical folks who are willing to jump in and do this. There is a fatigue and people are looking at this as an overwhelming challenge.”
The commission’s latest data show that 21.5 percent of Boston children ages 5 to 11 have had at least one dose of the vaccine. But that number masks wide disparities when viewed by race and ethnicity. The data indicate that White and Asian children have the highest percentages of vaccination (54.3 percent and 28.9 percent, respectively) as compared to those among Black and Latinx children (6.4 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively.)
“This is very problematic,” Ojikutu said. “We are redoubling our efforts to expand pediatric vaccinations.”
In Dorchester, where vaccination rates for young children are running 10 percent or lower, administrators at the Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center are finding that offering shots at their popular Volley Against Violence Friday night tennis clinics has helped convince some parents to get their children vaccinated. Mandy Bass, director of the center’s community wellness program, who organized the clinics, said the lower rates stem in part from lack of trust in the vaccine’s safety, especially for young children.
The center is the first indoor nonprofit tennis club built by and for the Black community, and the Friday night tennis clinics, which predate COVID, combine tennis lessons with coaching on life skills that draw on teamwork and improved communication.
“The first Friday, November 12, we were worried because it was kind of a rainy night and we didn’t know if people would come out,” Bass said.
“We vaccinated 60 people that night, and 43 were between 5 and 11,” she said.
The center has also long run twice-monthly education forums for residents to ask medical experts questions about diabetes, hypertension, stroke prevention, and other health issues that are more prevalent in the Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury neighborhoods. Since the pandemic, the center has focused the sessions on COVID-related concerns.
“What’s really important is that people have agency with their own health care and they are making informed decisions for themselves and their family based on scientific data,” Bass said.
“It’s sharing the information, getting it into the right hands, and that people trust the sources of the information.” she said.
Chelsea, an immigrant-rich community that was devastated by the virus early in the pandemic, beat expectations to gain some of the highest vaccination rates in the state for teens and adults. But the latest data show that only 15 percent of children there have received their first shot, well below the state average of about 27 percent.
Community leaders in Chelsea are reprising the strategies that worked for them before: bringing doctors door to door to answer residents’ questions and address their concerns.
“It’s about education, and building the trust, and answering the questions. People have a lot of questions,” said Dinanyili Paulino, chief operations officer at La Colaborativa, the community service group at the heart of the city’s successful vaccination drives.
The organization has also found that food is a powerful motivator, and it is dispensing healthy doses of encouragement along with shots-on-the spot at its weekly food bank.
Just before Thanksgiving, La Colaborativa sponsored a day-long celebration that drew block-long lines for food in frigid temperatures as workers milled among the crowds amid pulsing Latin music, encouraging parents, especially, to get their children vaccinated.
Among those convinced was 8-year-old Lyancer Soto, who drove with his mother and friend from Revere, to get a box packed with food for the holiday.
“My arm will hurt, but I don’t care,” he said, his hands thrust deep into his pockets against the chill. He decided he wanted the shot because, “if I get coronavirus, it won’t go long.”
But for every family that stepped forward for shots that day, it seemed just as many shook their heads or demurred.
“I want to talk to my son first,” Clelia Ramos said through a translator, about getting her 9-year-old granddaughter, Hailey, a shot. The child, who was preparing to perform a traditional Salvadoran folk dance at the event, said her father was not vaccinated, either.
Natalia Restrepo, a case manager at the organization, listened and nodded, and moved on. The lines and the work continued well past dark.
“We cannot lose hope,” said Paulino, the chief operations officer at La Colaborativa. “Everyday we are vaccinating people, and that’s what counts.”