How’s DC Doing on COVID Vaccines?

For School-Aged Kids, It's Not Great --But It Isn't Great For Immunizations Overall

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Mayor Muriel Bowser holds a small boy as he receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary's Center (3912 Georgia Ave. NW) Nov. 3, 2021. Courtesy: Office of Mayor Muriel Bowser

On June 21, DC’s youngest residents began receiving their first COVID-19 vaccinations after Pfizer-Biotech and Modern vaccines were given Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

With the ability to immunize most of the District’s residents against the COVID-19 virus, it is a good time to assess the District’s vaccine status.

It’s been a long ride since the COVID vaccine became widely available to District adults last spring. At the time, the District struggled to address inequity in distribution across wards and demographics. The District has made some headway in closing some of the gaps in COVID vaccination status over the last year, but significant challenges remain.

On June 21, 2021, data showed that only about 27 percent of ward 7 and 21 percent of Ward 8 residents were fully vaccinated; a year later, that number has risen to 46.7 percent overall and 54 in Ward 7. That’s still lower than in Ward 4, for instance, where 73.9 percent of residents have completed the primary series.

Overall, the District is moving closer to achieving equal rates of vaccination for its black and white residents. Last June, DC data indicated 31.6 percent of white residents and 24.9 percent of Black residents were fully vaccinated; this June, those rates are 58 and 56 percent, respectively.

However, a challenge still remains: vaccinating Black residents under the age of 25 against COVID-19.

According to the District’s own data, the percentage of Black and White residents over 25 who have completed the primary series of a COVID vaccine differs by a single point. For the youngest adults, those in the 18 to 24 range, 41 percent of Black residents have been vaccinated compared to 44 percent of their peers. However, the disparity increases as the data skews younger.

“We have even more African Americans being vaccinated, many because of job requirements,” acknowledged Ward 7 Councilmember Vincet Gray (D) who chairs the DC Council Committee of Health.  He said he is confident there will continue to be growth in the rate of vaccinations amongst African Americans. “The real test,” Gray said, “will be for our school children.”

In December, 2021 DC Council passed a bill requiring that as of the start of the 2022-23 school year, the COVID-19 vaccine be required for school enrollment and attendance in the District of Columbia —but only for those students in age group for which a COVID-19 vaccination has been fully approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As of June 2022, fully-approved COVID-19 vaccines are available for individuals aged 16 and older.

Only 58 percent of Black students aged 16 to 17 are vaccinated, compared to 88 percent of their white peers. For them, this could be a real problem; they will need to provide proof of vaccination within twenty days of the start of class.

The vaccine has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) but still awaits full approval from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for kids aged 15 and under. So, the school COVID vaccine requirement does not apply to those students. However, District officials are still encouraging school-aged kids to get vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks and ensure that everyone stays safe and in the classroom. If the student has a birthday and becomes eligible, or if a vaccine is approved for a new age group, the student has 70 days to submit proof of vaccination.

Right now, only 59 percent of Black students aged 12 to 15 are vaccinated, compared to 94 percent of their White peers; 26 percent of their elementary-aged siblings from 5 to 11 years are vaccinated, compared to 59 percent of white kids the same age.

Vaccine Insufficiency
The law requires students attending DC Public Schools to be up to date with vaccinations by 20 days after the start of school, or by Sept. 19. However, at a June 6 press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) encouraged parents to do so as early as possible.

COVID vaccines are only one of the immunizations District officials want kids to have when classes resume in DC’s public and public charter schools. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, families stayed home from pediatrician offices, missing required immunizations. The city was lenient over the past two years, wanting to ensure kids were in class again after being out so long. At a May meeting of the Healthy Youth & Schools Commission, commissars were told that around 20,000 students —a little more than one-fifth of the 93,000 students enrolled in District public schools —could be removed from school if the immunization attendance policy were enforced.

But this year, the Mayor warned, “I have to say, the requirement will be enforced; it will be. So now is the time to get your child vaccinated.” The mayor also confirmed that there will be no virtual option available in the 2022-23 school year.

The requirement isn’t just about COVID vaccines, either, Bowser said. “An outbreak of measles or whooping cough in a world where we have safe and effective vaccines should be unacceptable to everyone.”

That reminder comes amid news that District students are behind in immunization against whooping cough and measles. Measles can be fatal in children, Senior Deputy Director at DC Health Dr. Thomas Farley said. Vaccine records indicate that only 80 percent of kindergartners are up to date, Farley added.

Farley acknowledged that some kids might have been vaccinated in other states, but said it was still unlikely that those are sufficient numbers to prevent an outbreak in the schools. “These vaccines, while they’re excellent, are not 100 percent perfect; some kids could get infected; and there are some children, who for medical reasons, cannot get vaccinated,” he said. “To protect all of our children, we want to have all of our children vaccinated to close those gaps.”

Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) Superintendent Dr. Christina Grant said that communities have rightfully been focused on protecting themselves against COVID. But, she added, “it is critically important that we do not forget that the other infectious diseases that exist can also impact our children and our ability for our children to come to school, stay in school and be at the safest place we know they should be.”

Gray said Wards 7 and 8 have “some of the highest vaccinations for school aged minors in the District, including COVID shots,” but said he would still like to see more children get innoculated.  “I understand why a parent may be hesitant when it comes to a new vaccine, however, I encourage parents to talk with healthcare professionals about their concerns.”  Medical professionals can help and provide accurate information about the pros and risks, Gray said. “Ultimately, I believe that parents will put their kid’s health and education first and get them vaccinated in time for the first day of school.”

Incentives
While last year the District proposed AirPod, Nationals tickets and cash card giveaways as incentives, this year the District appears to be depending on people to do the right thing. But they’re still reminding them to do it. Schools are flagging incomplete records, calling and writing letters to parents and even doing home visits.

Certainly, its far easier to get vaccinated this year than it was at the same time last year, with walk-up COVID clinics and Ward COVID Centers (for Ward 7, at 3929 Minnesota Ave. NE and in Ward 8 at 3640 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE); School-Based Health Clinics (SBHC) will be open to all students aged 4 and older, no matter where they are enrolled, to be vaccinated. The clinic at Anacostia High School (1601 16th St. SE) will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday through the summer; the clinic at Ballou High School (3401 Fourth St. SE) 8:30 a.m. to noon Tuesday and Thursday starting July 5.

DC Health is also working with several community providers such as Children’s National to place mobile units at schools, recreation centers, COVID centers, and other community locations in all eight wards starting in August.

Finally, schools and faith organizations can request and coordinate on-site vaccination clinics with health providers by visiting https://request.vaccineexchange.dc.gov/.