Young Black child being vaccinated (via Ivan Pantic on iStock)

With COVID-19 vaccine availability for children under 12 now on the horizon, advocates are calling for a clear investment in communities of color to ensure vaccine equity and access for the children who’ve been hardest hit by the pandemic. Children aged 5 to 11 could have access to the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as the end of October, according to Scott Gottlieb, a member of Pfizer’s board and the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Pfizer trials are due to conclude by the end of September, and the FDA confirmed they will be “working around the clock” to review the data.

Experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are calling for urgency as COVID cases spike with the return of the school year. Over 5 million children have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. In the first week of September alone, children accounted for 200,000 COVID cases—nearly 30 percent of that week’s total reported cases.  

The virus is killing children of color at a higher rate than white kids. At least 516 children under the age of 18 have died from COVID over the past year, and within that group 177 were Latinx and 123 were Black, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With clear evidence that vaccines reduce hospitalization and death rates for adults, parents are hopeful that the trials for children will offer the same protections. 

But even if vaccines are safe and effective for children, the question remains: How will U.S. communities ensure vaccine equity for kids of color? Across the country, 54 percent of people of all ages are fully vaccinated, but of that, 60 percent are white. Overall, Black and Latinx people have been overrepresented in COVID-19 cases while receiving a smaller share of vaccinations than their population numbers would suggest. 

In San Francisco, city officials hope to adapt existing efforts to improve access when vaccines become available to younger children. The San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) reported no COVID outbreaks in their schools since students started in August, noting that around 90 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 17 fully vaccinated. SFDPH is working to grow that number and beyond. 

“Our primary focus remains on ensuring that people who are not yet vaccinated can receive their first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including preparing for the anticipated expansion of eligibility for children ages 5 to 11-years,” SFDPH said. 

Learning from an effective rollout, the process for expansion will be similar: “We will prioritize the most vulnerable and anticipate a phased rollout,” they explained, using their “robust system of nearly 100 vaccination sites across the city in coordination with many partners citywide.”

Offering multiple sites, including pop-up clinics on school campuses, and working with partners like educators, medical professionals and hospitals, community groups, faith groups, and universities has proven effective in growing vaccine access for communities of color around the country. 

“When people have access to routine immunizations, people of color are less likely to opt out of vaccines than their white counterparts, so part of closing the vaccination gap is improving access,” Erica Manoatl, Manager of Research Initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said. 

The Colorado Children’s Campaign is part of the Colorado Vaccine Equity Taskforce. They work to increase “access to COVID vaccine information and the vaccines themselves for eligible age groups, with special attention to communities of color who have been historically underserved,” Manoatl said. “This work will continue as the vaccines are approved for younger children.”

Over the past few months, because of initiatives like these, the share of vaccines to Latinx and Black communities has grown by single or double percentage points. In fact, in a handful of states around the country, more Black and Latinx people are now getting vaccinated than their white neighbors. Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and New York have all increased the shares of vaccines going to Latinx communities by 10 percent or more. 

Although promising, those numbers aren’t complete. Inconsistent reporting, the use of different definitions of “children,” varied ways of indicating ethnicity, and shifting reporting from states means the results can be hard to track and harder to find solutions for. But, based on the numbers they have, many communities are committed to vaccine equity for kids of color. 

In Vermont, the Vermont Professionals of Color Network (VTPOC) galvanized BIPOC vaccination clinics through the Vermont Health Equity Initiatives (VHEI) to address the gap between vaccine rates for communities of color and white Vermonters. Their sites worked to reduce barriers people were facing by creating an easy sign up process, providing interpretation and language support, and allowing families to get vaccinated together, while also providing transportation, food, and music to keep spirits light. 

“It really helps to have someone who looks like you from your community to help you through this process,” said Belan Antensaye, a board member of VTPOC. For young people, it’s important that whoever “is giving you the shot or doing the registration should look like you, and should be able to engage with you in a way that’s culturally competent.”

VHEI is in discussions about the booster and youth vaccination rollout. These clinics and programs being rooted in the local community have shown success and the potential for national scale, especially in communities where people of color are still facing barriers around access, lack of information in a language they understand, questions about the vaccine itself, and distrust in who is administering it. Having confident and comfortable parents will lead to more children being vaccinated. 

“If there is something that is supposed to be done to reduce disparities and support and uplift BIPOC communities, the best thing that institutions and people in power can do is give support to the people who know how to do it—financial and technical—and let them lead the way,” Antensaye said. 

Umme Hoque is a writer, editor, and organizer. She's passionate about writing about and investigating issues for low-income workers and communities of color, lifting up the experiences of those who are...