Newark slow to vaccinate eligible youth, with only 30% getting first COVID shot

A masked and gloved health worker administers a vaccination in the arm of a masked patient.
Newark’s vaccination rate varies sharply by neighborhood, from less than 20% of eligible children in some ZIP codes to more than 60% in another. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Less than a third of eligible Newark youth are vaccinated against COVID, according to city data, a worrying trend as the new school year approaches and the highly contagious delta variant causes cases to rise.

Just 30% of Newark children ages 12-17 had received at least one vaccine dose as of July 19, the data show, which is more than 10 percentage points lower than the statewide and national averages for that age group. 

Even more alarming, children in some parts of the city are far less likely to be protected against COVID than their peers. Within three ZIP codes in the city’s Central and South wards, less than 20% of eligible youth have received at least one vaccine shot — a rate three times lower than in the neighboring East Ward, where more than 60% of 12-17-year-olds have had their first dose.

Children are less likely than adults to become seriously ill due to COVID, but they still can be infected, get sick, and spread the virus to others. Nearly 91,000 children ages 5-17 have tested positive for COVID in New Jersey since the pandemic began, and many more were forced to quarantine last school year after their classmates became infected.

Now, time is running out to inoculate eligible students, who must get their first shot within the next two weeks to be fully vaccinated before school starts in September. The stakes are high, as all New Jersey students are required to return to classrooms this fall.

While the city and partner groups have hosted vaccination clinics at some schools, experts say greater access and more aggressive outreach is needed.

“It’s very concerning,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, CEO of University Hospital in Newark and New Jersey’s former health commissioner, referring to the low vaccination rate among youth nationally. He noted that the vaccines have proven safe and effective for all eligible age groups, and warned that the delta variant could heighten the risk of in-school transmission if more students are not vaccinated before the fall.

“These places, especially middle schools and high schools, could be the next types of institutions where spread is most common,” he added. “And then, of course, what happens is people bring the disease home to their loved ones.”

New Jersey is among the most vaccinated states, with 70% of its residents 18 and older fully immunized against COVID-19. State officials say the vaccines have been incredibly effective, with vaccinated residents accounting for well under 1% of hospitalizations this year.

But young people are a different story. Just 44% of youth ages 12-17 had received at least one shot as of Monday, compared with 76% of the overall eligible population, officials said. And while COVID rates remain far below their earlier peak, key metrics have started trending in the wrong direction.

“To reverse the increases in the hospitalizations that we’re seeing and the cases in our state, we need even more New Jerseyans to get vaccinated,” said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, adding that immunizing young people before next school year is a top priority. “The best thing parents can do to protect the health of their children is to vaccinate them against this virus.”

A rising number of Newark residents have received shots, with 56% of adults now fully vaccinated. But with the city’s test positivity rate doubling since June, too many residents are falling prey to online misinformation about the vaccine, Mayor Ras Baraka said during an online discussion Wednesday.

“People are listening to people who haven’t passed their high school science course,” he said, “as opposed to people who have a degree in medicine.”

A survey of Newark voters in May found that distrust of the government was the most commonly cited reason for vaccine hesitancy, followed by concerns about the vaccine’s safety and side effects. In recent interviews with Chalkbeat, several Newark students and educators echoed the mayor’s assessment that misinformation is also a major factor. 

Stephen Haley, who graduated this year from Arts High School, said misinformation is rampant among many of his peers. They have told him — incorrectly — that COVID is a “scam,” the shots contain tracking devices, and the vaccine is a government ploy to control the population, he said. Other friends gave more mundane reasons for avoiding the vaccine, including a fear of needles or side effects.

“I’ve heard it all at this point,” said Haley, who lives in a South Ward neighborhood where just 17% of the 12-17 age group has been vaccinated. Haley, who is 17, got his shots — but his older brother hasn’t, he said.

Akbar Cook is the principal of West Side High School, which sits in a ZIP code where just 18% of eligible children have received at least one shot. The school hosts a weekly vaccination clinic, but Cook said it is contending with residents’ wariness of the medical establishment and false rumors about the vaccine that spread like wildfire on social media. 

Now, he dreads the possibility that the low vaccination rate could lead to outbreaks this fall, prompting school closures.

“Our community above all can’t go through another shutdown,” he said, recalling the fallout from more than a year of remote learning. “The learning loss was too severe in my area, and I’ve seen the impact it had on kids that were perfectly fine to now they’re depressed with thoughts of suicide.”

In the Newark ZIP codes with the lowest youth vaccination rates, the majority of residents are Black. The American healthcare system’s long history of mistreating Black people has understandably bred mistrust, said Rev. David Jefferson, Sr., pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward.

“If our foundation was stronger, we’d be in a much stronger space to get vaccination up,” he said. “But because it was broken to start with, we’re working double time to make up for that.”

The city and partner groups have been working to expand access and promote vaccination among residents, including young people. Schools have hosted pop-up vaccination sites, the city has offered free rides to clinics, and canvassers are scheduled to go door-to-door sharing vaccine information. 

Jefferson’s church recently partnered with North Star Academy charter school and other local organizations to host a community vaccination event that also offered free food, clothing, and ice cream. Similar events pairing vaccine clinics with barbecues and backpack giveaways are planned for August.

“We have to draw young people in on an event basis and work with them on their level,” Jefferson said.

But some local leaders say the city and school district need to ramp up outreach. They point to New York City, which is offering the vaccine at summer school sites, and Jersey City, which is calling families to urge them to get their children vaccinated.

Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon said the district should launch a social media and advertising campaign to encourage eligible students to get vaccinated.

“It’s sad when small community-based organizations and teachers unions have greater outreach than a billion-dollar-a-year organization,” he said.

A district spokesperson said the school system is partnering with the city health department, Essex County, and other agencies to provide vaccines to young people across the city. The district lists vaccine sites for teens on its website, but the list is outdated. (A current list is available here.)

Mirabel Chukwuma, a 15-year-old sophomore at Weequahic High School, suggested that the city offer gift cards or the chance to win a scholarship to young people who get vaccinated, as other places have done. Mirabel, who is vaccinated, said she would also urge her peers to think about the larger community.

“Even if you’re not going to get the vaccine for yourself,” she said, “at least do it for the people around you.”

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