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Familiar racial disparities emerge in first month of COVID-19 vaccinations for the youngest Texans

Kids vaccine.JPG
Justin Rex
/
The Texas Tribune
Jazmine Richards injects Hana Ismail, 2, with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine while she sits on her father’s lap at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston last month.

Kids ages 6 months to 4 years became eligible for the vaccine last month. Experts say a number of factors could be hampering parents from getting their kids vaccinated.

Black toddlers and infants in Texas are being vaccinated against COVID-19 much more slowly than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts, according to state health data.

On the other end of the spectrum, 43% of the doses that have been administered to babies and kids who became eligible last month have gone to Hispanic children, state numbers show. And young Asian kids have received a share of the total doses that is nearly triple their share of Texans in that age group.

In the first five weeks that COVID-19 vaccines have been available to Texans ages 6 months to 4 years, more than 64,000 of the state’s 1.8 million newly eligible children have had at least one shot in the Pfizer or Moderna regimen. While this represents only 3.5% of the state’s youngest eligible age group, that’s roughly the same as the national rate for babies and children in that age group.

Disparities are surfacing along racial lines that are similar to those seen in previous age groups, particularly in the early stages of the vaccine rollout — highlighting an ongoing and multilayered challenge to health officials as they try to vaccinate a significant portion of young Texans, more than half of whom are children of color.

In all age groups now eligible for the vaccine, some 77% of Asian Texans have been vaccinated, compared with 68% of Hispanics, 55% of whites and 49% of Blacks.

In whiter, more rural areas, where the rate of fully vaccinated people has consistently lagged behind the statewide rate, vaccine hesitancy is often connected to mistrust in the government — and health care access is limited for the 1 in 10 Texans who live in those regions.

Hispanic and Black Texans report more issues with access than do white families, particularly when it comes to taking time off work to get a vaccine. Those communities also experience hesitancy commonly stemming from a mistrust in the health care system.

Sharon Cohan, founder and executive director of VaxTogetherAustin, said an additional challenge comes from the federal guidelines that anyone under the age of 3 receive the vaccine only after getting a doctor’s prescription. Also, only doctors and public health officials are allowed to give the shot to children ages 2 or younger.

That’s a barrier for people who have limited access to doctors or who feel uncomfortable in traditional health care settings, she said.

And it ties the hands of organizations like hers, which usually partners with Walgreens to run clinics and vaccination events at places like schools that most easily can reach lower-income communities and children of color.

“We can’t just come in with our usual team and vaccinate the kids who are 6 months and up,” she said. “In an ideal world, every parent and every child has a primary care pediatrician. But that’s just not the reality.”

Chart.JPG
Texas Department of State Health Services
/
Eric Lau

According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, of the 64,314 doses administered to the youngest age group:

  • Asian children have received about 11% of them, although they make up only an estimated 4% of the population in their age group. So far, almost 6% of the Asian population in this age group has received at least one dose.
  • Hispanic children have gotten the biggest share of doses, receiving 43% of those administered so far. About half of Texas children in this age group are Hispanic, according to demographic data. About 1.9% of Hispanic kids in this age group have received at least one dose.
  • White children have gotten about 32% of the doses, while comprising about one-third of the children in Texas ages 6 months to 4 years. About 2.2% of kids in this age group have received at least one dose.
  • Black children have gotten the smallest share of all doses administered in their age group, with just over 5%, while they comprise an estimated 12% of kids at this age, according to state population data. Less than 1% of Black Texans in the age group have received at least one dose.
  • Children of races and ethnicities outside of those four major groups and those who identify multiple races, all listed as “other” on published state records, have gotten just over 6% of the doses. About 3% of total doses went to children whose race is listed as “unknown.”

Texas health officials said the state will “continue to focus on populations with lower vaccine uptake, including communities of color and rural communities” in its outreach efforts, said Douglas Loveday, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Lower-than-hoped-for numbers

Texas is slightly ahead of the U.S. in terms of percentage of its youngest children vaccinated, although state and local health officials say the number of children vaccinated is lower than they had hoped.

But vaccine uptake, no matter what age and for most races, has always been a battle in parts of Texas for reasons ranging from politics to poverty, geography to governmental mistrust.

“We’ve been dealing with that this entire pandemic,” Cohan said.

Statewide, some 61% of Texans have been fully vaccinated since the shot was first available in December 2020, compared with 79% nationally.

In the Rio Grande Valley, early interest in and access to the vaccine by adult recipients was higher than expected — in fact, the entire border region consistently led the state in its vaccination rates. In Hidalgo County, for example, 83% of the population is fully vaccinated.

That’s why Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County health authority, is surprised and saddened by a significant drop-off in vaccine uptake by those same residents when it comes to their young children.

Of the 1,000 doses his agency has received that are earmarked for those children, only about 200 have been administered because interest has been so low, he said.

Melendez doesn’t find the proportionately higher rates among Hispanic children to be particularly encouraging, given the low overall number of takers for a vaccine that’s in plenty of supply.

“Our community partners are kind of reporting something similar, that we’re just disappointed in the amount of people that are taking it up in this age group,” he said. “The physicians and the health department are trying to be really proactive in educating people, but I don’t think it’s a resource issue. I don’t think it’s because we don’t have enough air time. It’s not that we don’t have enough vaccines, because we certainly do.”

Melendez, who is also a family practitioner, said he’s not seeing the same level of vaccine uptake for the kids as he did for the adults in the early days mainly due to misinformation about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and apathy about the pandemic.

“Probably the underlying thing is, ‘I’ll risk it, but I’m not going to let my kids risk it,’” Melendez said.