‘We are worried’: Only 9% of Philadelphia youth ages 5 to 11 have received COVID vaccine

A young boy wearing a winter coat is comforted by an adult kneeling next to him before getting a vaccine shot inside a school gym.
With the emergence of the omicron variant in Philadelphia, city officials are concerned about the number of young children who are vaccinated. (Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat)

Editor’s note: This article was updated to properly attribute material that appeared in a City of Philadelphia press release.

City officials are concerned about the low vaccination rate among children ages 5 to 11, particularly as Philadelphia has identified its first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Only 9% of children in that age range in Philadelphia have received one dose of the vaccine since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended last month that 5- to 11-year-olds be vaccinated against COVID.

“We are worried and really trying hard to increase the number currently,” said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner.

City officials announced Friday that a Philadelphia resident tested positive for the omicron variant, a new strain of the coronavirus. The health department warned Philadelphia residents to take precautions in light of a new, more transmissible strain.

“Since the discovery of this new variant, we have been preparing for the likelihood of an omicron case in Philadelphia,” said Mayor Jim Kenney. “A new variant, especially one that may be more transmissible, means that we have to stay vigilant about taking steps to protect ourselves and everyone around us.”

Kenney said the news was “especially discouraging” during the holiday season, and urged people to be vigilant. “Now is the time to get your vaccine or booster, mask up, and take extra precautions when you are going out in public or getting together with other households.”

Families with young children haven’t had much time to get the vaccine, which requires two doses spaced three weeks apart, and rates of vaccination still are low in nearby cities and states. (Children under age 5 still aren’t eligible for the vaccine.)

In New Jersey,  1.1% of the eligible population has had at least one dose. Less than 10% of children in New York City within the 5-11 age group have received the first dose.

The low numbers for young children are in contrast to older groups in Philadelphia, who have had more time to get the vaccine. More than 93.2% of adults in Philadelphia have had at least one dose of vaccine, and Bettigole expects the city to have at least 75% of adults fully vaccinated within the next few days. She said 74.8% of adults are fully vaccinated, and more than 140,000 Philadelphians have had a booster dose so far.  

Forty one percent of residents between ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, and at least 51% have received one dose. “Those numbers are great, but they aren’t high enough,” Bettigole said.

According to the World Health Organization, omicron may cause more reinfections than previous COVID variants, which means people who have had an infection and have not yet been vaccinated may be at higher risk.

Like Kenney, Bettigole also urged Philadelphians to take precautions.

“The best thing we can do in the meantime, is to keep doing the things that have protected us for the last two years. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, avoid crowded indoor spaces, and stay home if you’re sick,” Bettigole said.

She noted evidence so far also points toward this winter being a severe flu season, particularly for children and young adults, and encouraged people to get flu shots too.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Nov. 29 issued guidance to Head Starts requiring universal masking for everyone 2 and older. Additionally, the department requires full vaccination for staff, some contractors, and volunteers by Jan. 31, 2022.

Head Start offers free, full-day preschool that serves more than 9,500 children in the city.

The school district already has vaccine mandates in place for its staff and some students. Its 20,000 employees were mandated to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Sept. 30. Students participating in interscholastic sports in the winter need to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 18, while those playing in the spring have until March 1 to get vaccinated.  

“We are reviewing data now and planning information events, but we don’t anticipate any new issues with this federal announcement,” said district spokesperson Monica Lewis. “We will continue to encourage all those who are eligible to get vaccinated. We are working with public health agencies to offer information on and access to vaccines and we hope that those in our school communities take advantage of such opportunities.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, who has been supportive of a negotiated mandate for district workers, has stressed that another aspect of the district’s COVID mitigation strategy falls short. Jordan has urged the district to test all students regularly for COVID whether or not they show symptoms. Right now, the district only tests symptomatic students or those participating in sports or performing arts activities.

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