His eldest son, 14 year-old Yahir Gonzalez, has been receiving emails from his charter school saying the vaccine is his best chance for a normal year of high school. He wants it.
On Saturday, Sykes took Yahir and a younger son to Ballou High School in Southeast Washington for a back-to-school event where children could receive routine school immunizations and free backpacks. Families could also visit a dentist, get groceries and listen to the Ballou marching band.
And, while they were there, the Sykes family and others could get a coronavirus vaccine from Children’s National Hospital nurses.
When a nurse approached the family, Sykes encouraged his son to ask her questions. They inquired about the dangers and the rare breakthrough cases as the nurse explained that the vaccine is safe and effective. “We’re having a thorough debate about this in our house,” said Sykes, who owns a home renovation company.
With the start of the academic year this month, D.C. officials are rushing to get eligible students vaccinated. It’s already too late for youths to receive both shots of an authorized coronavirus vaccine before the start of school. Teens are not yet eligible for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but officials hope they can get students a first dose this summer and administer a second once they are back on campus.
They have big challenges ahead of them. Vaccination rates in the District among students ages 12 to 17 are low, particularly among Black children, who account for about 65 percent of the city’s public school population. Fifty-one percent of White 12-to-15-year-olds have received at least one dose while just 14 percent of Black youths in the same age group have received one, according to city data.
Among older teens, 47 percent of White 16- and 17-year-olds are vaccinated, according to city data, compared to about 21 percent for Black teens of the same age.
(Hispanic teenagers have vaccination rates similar to their White peers.)
One of the big hurdles: Many parents of these teens — Black men and women in their 30s and 40s — are also unvaccinated.
And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The daily coronavirus case rate in D.C. has increased more than fivefold since early July, with the virus spreading most among unvaccinated residents younger than 35, data shows. In the District, it means that the new cases are overwhelmingly affecting Black residents in the most low-income parts of the city.
In the spring, unvaccinated students needed to quarantine at home if they were exposed to the virus in their classroom. Depending on health protocols in the fall, the city risks having unvaccinated Black students spending more time at home in quarantine than their White peers.
“We continue to see disparities in who is getting infected in the District of Columbia both from a race and ethnic perspective as well as from a geographic perspective,” D.C. Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt said at a news conference last week. “Black youth are three times more likely to be infected with covid than their White counterparts.”
Nesbitt said she has the power to require that students get coronavirus vaccination to return to school buildings, but she has opted not to exercise it. Many city leaders agree with that call, saying that, with so many families questioning the safety of the vaccine, a requirement right now could create yet another hurdle to getting students back in the buildings.
The city is relying on a patchwork of trusted community health providers, school leaders and activists to share information about vaccination or hold clinics. The hope is that beloved schools and known organizations such as Children’s National Hospital — which has been out with its medical trucks providing roving health services in Southeast Washington throughout the pandemic — can eventually persuade families to get the shots.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) also recently announced that up to 1,200 unvaccinated teens can get free Air Pods if they are vaccinated at designated school sites. A raffle will also award $25,000 college scholarships to selected vaccinated teens. They are giving grants to schools for outreach.
The District opened vaccination to people 16 and older in April. Youngsters ages 12 to 15 followed soon after. The city also expanded access, with an ample supply of shots and vaccine sites across the city that do not require appointments.
But health officials are up against a young population that feels it does not need vaccination, and one that is consuming a lot of misinformation on the Internet. There’s also historic mistrust between the Black community and the nation’s health-care system that the city has not been able to overcome to achieve equitable vaccination rates among non-senior residents.
Gabe Perry, a 13-year-old rising ninth-grader at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, was afraid of coronavirus vaccination. He saw false rumors that you could die or lose a leg.
“I read it on the Internet,” he said.
When the school sent an email to parents and families with news of a vaccine clinic on campus, the boy’s father signed him up.
Gabe was nervous, so his aunt took him and his cousins, recent E.L. Haynes graduates, to the clinic to support him. All of them received their first doses together at the school.
“We wanted to support him,” said Gabe’s aunt, Nicole Winston. “And all the older people in my family have [been vaccinated], so I figured it was my turn.”
E.L. Haynes was providing $25 American Express gift cards to current students who were vaccinated that day. School leaders said they have known these families for years, and figured that if anyone can build trust among their students and parents, it’s them.
At the clinic set up in the school’s gymnasium, some families said they had been waiting for the school to offer vaccination before they signed up their children.
D’Amonie, a 14-year-old whose family did not want her last name to be published, was among those who attended the clinic on Friday. Her mother initially was reluctant about vaccination and opted to wait until she felt it was safe. In July, once her office said employees needed to be vaccinated or get tested weekly, she decided it was time. And once she was vaccinated, she allowed her daughter to get the shots, too.
D’Amonie, a rising sophomore, wanted to be vaccinated at E.L. Haynes so she could see the campus. She started at the school in Northwest Washington her freshman year but had never been in the building because of virtual learning.
The vaccination clinic provided her an opportunity to see the school for the first time. “I was excited to just get in the school building,” she said.
Fifty-one people were vaccinated at E.L. Haynes on Friday, including 34 students. That’s a bigger uptake than other youth-focused vaccination clinics have experienced. In June, for example, the city had a clinic for adults and children at Ballou’s high school graduation. Not a single person was vaccinated that day.
On Saturday, thousands of people poured into a back-to-school event at St. Elizabeths East Gateway Pavilion in Congress Heights that was hosted by Martha’s Table and the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation. There were backpacks, clothes, groceries, school supplies and a booth where people could be vaccinated. Community of Hope — a health center in the neighborhood — was administering the vaccines and Imani Marks, the nursing director, said she saw many of her patients at the event.
Only a handful of people — and even fewer teens — were vaccinated at the event, but Marks said she was able to talk to people about the vaccine. Another Community of Hope worker walked around the event and asked people if they wanted information about the vaccine.
“We’re having good conversations about vaccine hesitancy, but we haven’t had as much [uptake] as we would want,” Marks said. “But our biggest goal today is education.”
Back at Ballou, Sykes and his son were learning more about the vaccine.
“The shot will help with the new variant?” Sykes asked.
“It won’t 100 percent prevent you from getting it, but if you do, it won’t be as serious,” replied the nurse.
Sykes said he would consider getting the vaccine. He let his son decide whether he wanted it right then. They haven’t made any firm decisions.
“I’m going to do a little more research,” the teen said.