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Vaccination rates for Massachusetts children, ages 5-11, are a ‘tale of two states’

Economics alone does not explain the disparities.

Anna Soto (left) watches her son Lyancer, 8, joke with Joseph Chaparro, 8, before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine during a Thanksgiving party at La Colaborativa, in Chelsea, on Nov. 23.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Overall, nearly 75 percent of Massachusetts residents have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. But that encouraging statewide number masks extreme regional disparities — including among children eligible for the vaccine: In 112 cities and towns, the vaccination rate for school-age children between 5 and 11 is 33 percent and below. In 155 communities, it’s between 34 and 66 percent; and in only 74 communities, the vaccination rate is 67 percent and above.

Alan Geller, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who compiled the vaccination rate breakdown for the Globe editorial board, based on data provided by the Department of Public Health, said the numbers illustrate “a tale of two states.”


For example, the lowest vaccination rates occur in many of the poorest communities, such as Athol (14 percent); Fall River (15 percent); New Bedford (16 percent); Brockton and Springfield (17 percent); Holyoke and Lawrence (24 percent); Haverhill (25 percent); and Lowell (30 percent). Meanwhile, most of the wealthier suburbs show a much higher vaccination rate for this age group. For example, Arlington, Boxborough, Carlisle, Concord, Medfield, Needham, Sherborn, and Wayland have a vaccination rate above 95 percent.

“This is the most striking disparity of the vaccine roll-out,” said Geller. But given the large chunk of communities stuck in the mid-range, the pediatric vaccination gap is not just a function of economics. “We will not be successful unless lots of communities in the middle move to 67 percent and above,” he said. Of the target population of 515,000 children, ages 5 to 11, as of today, “288,800 have not had a single dose,” said Geller.

Note: Some communities’ rates go over 100% because the state’s reported number of vaccines is above the population estimates from Mass. Dept. of Public Health.

Increased access to vaccines and a more intensive state-wide public awareness campaign are key elements to addressing the issue — and that takes leadership from Governor Charlie Baker and his entire public health team. While everyone is understandably worn down by this pandemic, now is not the time for complacency or resignation. Baker’s commitment to keeping in-person learning in schools makes it all the more important to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated. Parents who distrust the vaccine and worry about its short-term and long-term effects need special attention.


Baker showed early sensitivity to the equity mission. Last April, when the state’s vaccine roll-out was still in its early phase, Massachusetts launched an outreach campaign targeting 20 high-risk cities and towns to boost access and address vaccine hesitancy among vulnerable populations. Baker also directed funding to targeted communities. The Baker administration says its Vaccine Equity Initiative continues to work closely with community leaders to run a wide range of initiatives to reach parents and kids, including clinics at family-friendly sites like libraries and clinics featuring kid-friendly events, giveaways, and more. Over 65,000 doses have been administered via more than 870 state-sponsored, school-based clinics at over 700 schools in 160 different cities and towns. The administration is also running a $7 million vaccine public awareness campaign, “Trust the Facts, Get the Vax,” to encourage more pediatric vaccinations. It includes TV ads in English and Spanish featuring pediatricians vouching for the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Yet the vaccination rate numbers speak for themselves. Of the 20 Vaccine Equity Initiative cities, only four have rates in the 5-11 age group above 33 percent: Boston (36 percent); Chelsea and Malden (37 percent); and Framingham (51 percent). “What we really need is a massive education campaign led by the state, coupled with vaccine ambassadors,” said Geller. With vaccines, it’s especially important to identify advocates who are trusted in the community and can get the message across that the benefits far outweigh any risks.


If you are vaccinated, doctors say, the Omicron variant results in less severe symptoms than the Delta variant. But unvaccinated children, like unvaccinated adults, are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, and spreading it, as well as becoming ill enough to require hospitalization. Unvaccinated children also put teachers at greater risk. “Plenty of teachers may be vaccinated but work in COVID-high-risk cities. We have to think of that from a public health perspective,” said Geller. Beth Kontos, the president of the Massachusetts affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union would like to see more vaccination clinics set up in school settings.

Some parents will resist vaccines for their children, no matter how accessible they are or who reaches out to them. But the right campaign, specifically directed to parents of young children, could get some fence-sitters off the fence and into a vaccination site.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.