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As Conn. children get vaccinated, equity across communities still a concern

Aniqule DeBoulet, 11, looks away as EMT Joe Mahoney with Griffin Health administers a COVID-19 shot during the vaccine clinic for children at Elm City Montessori School.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Aniqule DeBoulet, 11, looks away as EMT Joe Mahoney with Griffin Health administers a COVID-19 shot during the vaccine clinic for children at Elm City Montessori School in New Haven.

Connecticut parents and their children began lining up for COVID-19 vaccines last week after the federal government authorized a two-dose vaccine for kids 5 to 11 years old.

Now with expanded vaccine eligibility to all but infants and toddlers, health experts and state leaders hope that most of Connecticut’s population will soon be immunized against the virus – but there are still challenges.

“In this pandemic, we have seen many disparities laid bare, and there is still a large gap in vaccination rates between communities,” said Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin at the Hispanic Health Council last week. “And here in Hartford, we still have a long way to go.”

Connecticut has some of the highest overall COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, but when broken down by race and ethnicity, children of color and those in lower-income families have a higher risk of becoming ill from the virus due to lagging immunizations.

Community leaders say that can be the result of a combination of factors: the spread of vaccine misinformation online, barriers to accessing the shot, and existing inequities among different groups of people.

“A lot of the folks that we work with, vaccinations may be one of the last things that they’re concerned about,” said Ken Barela, CEO of the Hispanic Health Council. “They’re just trying to figure out how to eat, how to live, how to get shelter over their heads. So, we have to address these issues on a very holistic level.”

Data on vaccine uptake in the youngest age group is limited with just a week of eligibility. But the state has collected information on vaccinations among 12- to 15-year-olds, who were cleared to get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine back in May.

That data shows that nearly 3 out of every 4 young teenagers in Connecticut have gotten at least one shot, but coverage rates vary by race and ethnicity.

Just about half or less of Black and Native American children in this age group are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the latest state data. About 65% of Hispanic kids have gotten their first dose compared with 70% of white kids and 84% of Asian children.

While kids overall have fared better with COVID-19 illness than adults, any infection could still lead to quarantine and isolation as well as disruption to education, extracurricular activities, sports and other social interaction with friends and family.

“Equity, access and opportunity as it relates to the vaccine and keeping our kids, our staff and our families safe has been at the center of how we’ve approached managing COVID-19,” Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, said last week at Dunkin’ Donuts Park.

But only about one-third of the district’s students 12 years and older are vaccinated against the virus, she said, and 1,500 students have been placed in quarantine so far this year.

“Every minute that is lost in instruction matters,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

The school system has partnered with the city, health providers and community organizations to improve vaccination rates by increasing local access to the vaccines – the baseball stadium will host two child vaccine clinics Nov. 14 and Dec. 5 – and by helping families get correct information and address lingering concerns.

“We’re going to continue doing outreaches, very personalized outreaches,” Torres-Rodriguez said, “from not only calling our families, having our community conversations … and then what we do best, making sure we do home visits to understand exactly what the barriers are, what the misconceptions are that our families have.”

Experts say misconceptions due to online misinformation and disinformation are a big part of the problem – especially when misleading content from non-English-language websites and sources goes unchecked on social media.

But even for families who do want their kids to get vaccinated, barriers remain.

“You’ve got to bring the vaccines to the families, remind them and provide a venue where they can actually come in and get vaccinated,” said Dr. Juan Salazar, a pediatrician and physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s.

“But I do understand, it’s not always easy,” he said. “If the family is working, they don’t have transportation, how do they get to the right place?”

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey,lower-income parents were more likely to be concerned with taking time off to get their younger children vaccinated, traveling to a vaccine site and potential costs than parents with higher earnings.

More than half of respondents earning less than $50,000 a year said they were very or somewhat concerned that they might have to take time off work to bring their child to get vaccinated or care for them if they experienced side effects, compared with 23% of parents with higher earnings who said the same.

And 38% of low-income parents worried about difficulty traveling to a vaccination site, whereas only 3% of higher earners had that concern.

Barela said organizations, health providers and city and state leaders have the responsibility of narrowing the vaccination disparities by giving help and resources to those who need it most.

“It’s our job to reach out to the community where they live, as much as we can and in an effective way as we can,” he said, “to make sure they are receiving information in a culturally competent way, they’re being directed to the sources that are out there, and it is done in a way that is compassionate and is sensitive to the unique situation that they may be in.”

For information on where to get a COVID-19 vaccine, visitct.gov/covidvaccine or call 2-1-1. Para obtener información sobre la vacuna COVID-19, visitect.gov/covidvaccine o llame al 2-1-1. 

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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