Outside the stadium gates, students and their families saw another sign of the times: A tent stood ready with coronavirus vaccines, offering the graduates a shot with their diplomas.
But there were no takers. Both before the ceremony, when families arrived, and again after the commencement, when they spilled happily outside to take photographs, not a single person attending the graduation stopped in the tent to get vaccinated.
D.C. Health workers said similar clinics were somewhat more successful at other high school ceremonies this week. Still, the dismal result at Ballou’s graduation illustrated a problem: Young people in the city’s poorest areas are lagging far behind their wealthier peers in coronavirus vaccinations.
D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) shared a stark statistic: Among children ages 12 to 15, who became eligible for the vaccine last month, 67 percent in wealthy Ward 2 have had at least one dose. In Ward 8, the city’s poorest, where Ballou is located, just 5 percent of these eligible children have gotten a dose.
If the disparity persists until the fall, it could mean major differences in education for students in different areas of the city. Vaccinated public school students probably will not have to quarantine if a classmate tests positive for the coronavirus, while those who haven’t had shots might miss many days of school.
The District’s vaccination rate overall has met Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s goal, with more than 70 percent of adults now at least partially vaccinated. Coronavirus infections have fallen steeply, with zero deaths from June 18 through Friday.
But in keeping with national trends, younger people are much less likely to be vaccinated than older people. In the District, coronavirus vaccination rates are highest for those ages 65 to 74 and drop with every decrease in age. About 30 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds across the city have had at least one shot, as have 36 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds and 42 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds.
Black young people are the least likely to be vaccinated, with rates in each age group that are only about one-third of the city’s overall vaccination rate for their age. One out of every 10 Black 12- to 15-year-olds in the District has had a shot, compared with almost 1 out of every 2 of their White peers.
Ankoor Shah, the head of the city’s vaccine program, told D.C. Council members last month that the city has been studying focus groups to understand why Black residents under 40 are notably less likely to get vaccinated than White peers.
Many of these younger Black adults express concerns about side effects from the vaccine, even though health experts emphasize that side effects are generally fleeting and far less serious than covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Some are wary of the medical establishment or say they don’t believe they are at high risk of catching a severe case of covid.
“The solution is not only some program or initiative. I think these are systematic and systemic and historical, structural problems that have happened for hundreds of years,” Shah said. “Institutional and structural racism that’s embedded through all parts of our society is making itself known.”
When council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) urged Shah to consider offering cash incentives or a high-dollar lottery to persuade people to take the shot, Shah said, he disapproved of the lottery idea. “If you have hesitancy for government trust, and the government says we’re going to give you a lot of money to get the vaccine, that only increases that distrust,” he said. “That’s what the literature shows.”
Still, the city recently started offering incentives at three coronavirus vaccine clinics east of the Anacostia River, the city’s historic dividing line. Anyone who gets a first shot at the three sites, including children, will receive a $51 gift card. Adults will also be entered into drawings for prizes including $10,000 in grocery vouchers, Metro fare cards and a Jeep.
Vaccinations at those three sites have doubled, a health department leader said Friday. But he said it wasn’t yet clear whether the rise in numbers simply represented people getting their shot at those sites instead of another site, or a true increase in vaccinations because of the $51 incentive.
In a meeting Friday, a staffer for Bowser told council members that the city is now considering incentives specifically geared toward getting teenagers vaccinated, such as raffling off vouchers for college tuition.
Howard University has focused on getting Black residents, including those who are college-age, vaccinated in the District. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona visited the university’s clinic Friday to speak about the challenge of delivering vaccines to young adults.
“I just spoke to a young man who’s a student here, a second-year student, who said he was a little hesitant. But having Howard do it, he trusts Howard — that was what it took for him to get the shot,” Cardona said. “It’s really about helping provide access from trusted sources.”
The university will require a vaccine for students who plan to return to campus in the fall.
One 30-year-old Howard employee, who asked not to be identified by name, said he was worried about “long-term effects and the unknown.” But the employee said he felt more confident after speaking with two medical students — both around the same age as the employee — who explained that the drug is safe and assured him that severe side effects are rare.
On Wednesday, many of the Ballou graduates said they had not been vaccinated, and they were not interested in marring their celebratory day by stopping in the tent for a shot.
“There aren’t a lot of young Black men graduating this time of year. I’m proud to be one of them,” said River Barfield, 18. A standout on Ballou’s basketball team, Barfield has his future planned out: He’ll go away for college, then return to D.C. to open a shoe store, where he hopes to price his cool shoes so reasonably that poor children will be able to afford them.
He said he plans to get the vaccine before college, but he wanted “no negative energy” on commencement day. “I’m scared. I want to procrastinate a little while,” Barfield said.
Many graduates spoke of the ways that the pandemic spoiled their senior year — the struggle to complete classes online while also working and supervising younger siblings, the time they couldn’t spend seeing their friends in person.
Valedictorian Riley Campbell opened her graduation speech by commemorating March 13, 2020, the last day that her class was at school together. “Imagine you have the world at your fingertips, and at the drop of a dime, it all gets taken away,” she said. “It took away our memories.”
Malachi Mack, 18, an aspiring vocalist, said she was still mourning the ways she didn’t get to celebrate. “Honestly, I feel like the pandemic took away my excitement” about graduation, she said. “I didn’t get the proper senior year. We didn’t get prom.”
She noted the vaccine tent, but walked past. “I don’t think I’m going to get it. I don’t think that vaccine is going to be the answer to healing people,” she said. A real solution “would come out of the ground. I don’t believe in man-made things. . . . Just eat healthy.”
Inside the tent, Ashley Robinson, 33, said she understood.
She had been stricken with the coronavirus, falling ill for three months and losing 135 pounds, more than a third of her body weight. Now, she has to carry an inhaler. “You never breathe the same,” she said.
Still, when she first heard about the coronavirus vaccines, she read false reports that the shot is administered using an unusually large needle and that it contains a “liquid chip” that would track her.
“I was the ultimate naysayer of these vaccines. I was one of the conspiracy theorists,” she said. “I was totally against it, 100 percent. . . . I freaked myself out when I looked it up online.”
She changed her mind only after learning that her entire family had a meeting without her and decided that they would all get the shots.
This week, with one dose of Pfizer-BioNTech done and one more to go, Robinson is dreaming about the vacation she can take once she’s fully vaccinated.
On Wednesday, she camped outside the graduation. It was her third day at her new job — working for a nonprofit organization contracted by D.C.’s health department to spread the word about the vaccines to hard-to-reach people.
She said she hopes she can get young people to listen and to have the same change of heart that she had.
Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.