Her daughter emerged from Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County with the first of her two doses — one of thousands of students helping to drive a surge in vaccinations among 12- to 15-year-olds in the Washington region.
“She was excited,” McCoy said, recalling that the rising eighth grader showed little of her usual nervousness about shots. “She’s heard so much, and she knew she needed it.”
Vaccinations among children ages 12 to 15 in Montgomery County have climbed faster since the opening of eligibility than for any other age group amid the pandemic, according to county health officials.
In just over a month, up to 57 percent of adolescents in this youngest-yet bracket have received at least one dose. Adding in older teens, the number for 12- to 18-year-olds jumps to 59 to 65 percent, county health officials say.
Similarly, teenagers in Northern Virginia have been swift on the uptake, with close to two-thirds of 12-to-17-year-olds receiving at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-June, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. Already, 55 percent of the 12- to 15-year-old group is at least partly vaccinated in four Northern Virginia counties.
But that progress is uneven in the region, with the pace slower in D.C. and in Prince George’s County, as it has been with adults. Experts say lower vaccination numbers in communities of color are often linked to historical racism and distrust, along with practical issues such as access and transportation.
Nearly 21 percent of the District’s 12- to 15 year-olds are at least partially vaccinated, according to city data, and about 32 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds have had at least one dose — a rate that hasn’t increased much all month. In Prince George’s, where data was combined for ages 12 to 19, the vaccination rate was about 36 percent.
Health and school officials agree that vaccinations could help pave the way to a more successful, less worrisome reopening of schools in August and September. Across the region, school systems have committed to full-day in-person learning five days a week.
“Providing vaccination to kids would be a great game changer to feeling more comfortable and confident that schools can reopen safely without restrictions,” said Travis Gayles, chief of public health services for Montgomery County.
But the importance goes beyond school. It cannot be assumed, Gayles said, that if children catch covid, their illness, if any, will be mild. Health officials remain concerned about new variants and potential long-term effects.
Nationally, more than 4 million children have tested positive for the virus during the pandemic, according to a recent report, but severe illness is relatively infrequent.
“We must encourage vaccination in their age group as much as we have across the board with different populations,” he said.
Some signs of this are promising: Across four Northern Virginia counties, more than 94,800 adolescents have bared their arms for vaccinations in recent months.
Parents and children have lined up at grocery stores, at churches, at pharmacies — and at schools.
Fairfax County, the largest school district in Virginia, launched a blitz-style vaccination push in mid-May. Over 10 days, 10 school campuses hosted vaccination clinics, administering shots to more than 4,000 students, at 56 schools, in grades seven through 12.
One key to the effort: School buses shuttled kids to their nearest clinic.
Cara King, 15, left French class in late May to board a bus to Langley High School. There, she filed into a gymnasium-become-clinic, sat down and answered questions about her allergies. Then she bared her arm.
It was short and painless.
Soon she was back in English class at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax.
“In class, some kids were asking me why there were buses outside because I guess they didn’t know,” King said. “When I told them, they said, ‘Wow, that’s really cool you got it through school.’ ”
As of Wednesday, more than 56,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 in Fairfax County have received at least their first dose — about 60 percent.
“It was a really, really intense effort,” Sloan Presidio, chief academic officer, told the school board at a recent meeting.
In neighboring Virginia municipalities, percentages of 12-to-17 year olds with at least one dose was equal or higher: 74 percent in Arlington, 63 percent in Alexandria and 60 percent in Loudoun, state health department data showed.
But all of this had some parents feeling left behind.
Margaret Perry, of Fairfax County, said she will sign her 7-year-old daughter up for the vaccine the instant the first-grader becomes eligible. Clinical trials are underway studying the safety and efficacy of the vaccine in children age 6 months to 11 years old, and infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci has predicted America will be able to start vaccinating this age group early next year.
But in the meantime, Perry is forced to watch as other families with older kids embark on returns to normalcy, embracing an almost carefree, pandemic-is-over summer lifestyle. The Perrys are stuck in the status quo: following safety precautions, masking up and staying away from public places.
'When can I get the vaccine?'
Tovel Young II, 14, went to Six Flags during the early weeks of his eligibility. His parents were already immunized. A rising ninth grader in Prince George’s, he follows the news and realized it was his turn, prodding his parents: “When can I get the vaccine?”
On Tuesday, the teenager from Bowie offered his arm for a second dose. “Vaccinations get a lot of pressure off you for traveling,” the teenager said. “You might have a reaction, but it’s worth it at the end.”
His sister Sydney, 11, a rising seventh grader, is not eligible until her birthday in October. She said she hopes to celebrate turning 12 — and get her shot the next day. “It takes a weight off your shoulders,” she said.
County health officials said they are focused on vaccine access and education for younger residents, along with community clinics and mobile units to reach deeper into neighborhoods with more barriers to vaccination. More than 1.2 million outreach attempts were made by text, phone and door-knocking, said county health department spokesman George Lettis.
In D.C., vaccine clinics opened June 1 at four public schools — so that any resident could walk in and get a shot — in predominantly Black and Hispanic communities that have had low vaccine rates.
Anacostia High in Ward 8 — the ward with the lowest vaccination rate — is one of the school clinic sites and, as of Saturday, residents 12 years and older who get vaccinated there will receive a $51 gift card and will be entered to win two round-trip American Airlines tickets.
Still, vaccination rates among youth in the District are relatively low — which could take a toll on future learning if it does not change. As it now stands, unvaccinated students who are exposed to the virus must quarantine for 10 days and learn virtually. Vaccinated students face no such protocol, a difference that could foster inequality in the number of days in classrooms.
Graduation and vaccination
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said the city is still working to vaccinate more students and will offer shots at high school graduations in late June. Graduates, siblings and families can all get vaccinated at the outdoor ceremonies.
“We are strategically identifying schools and other locations in neighborhoods where there has been vaccine hesitancy,” Ferebee said.
Katrena Nash, a parent at the Children’s Guild D.C. Public Charter School in Northeast, is on a personal mission to help ease vaccine reluctance. Laid off from her job during the pandemic, she was vaccinated and helps educate families — answering questions about safety protocols by phone and going door-to-door with her 14 year-old son, Kamerin.
She said Kamerin’s football coaches at the Boys & Girls Club have been telling him about the vaccine and he is excited to get it.
“I’m beating the pavement because I want something different for my community,” Nash said.
Across the city, advocates are strategizing about vaccine education. Ambrose Lane Jr., who co-founded the Black Coalition Against Covid, helped convene a meeting recently with religious leaders, community groups and city health officials. Pastors need to be talking about it from their pulpits, he said, and vaccinated students need to be trained to talk about it with their peers — which he said has already been effective.
Low youth vaccination rates largely reflect the hesitancy of adults, Lane said. Many don’t trust the vaccine because they say it came out of the Trump administration at “warp speed” — and that’s on top of the long-standing mistrust between communities of color and the medical establishment.
Lane said he has been asked repeatedly what is in the vaccine — a sign that community leaders need to be prepared to answer scientific questions.
Still, he said, even with strong outreach, youth vaccination rates can only climb so high unless the mayor requires it for attending school. So far, that hasn’t happened.
'Our campaign made it cool'
In Alexandria, officials came up with creative ways to break through barriers to vaccination, hosting 65 separate vaccination efforts inside school buildings and delivering 45,000 doses to adults and those under age 18.
Efforts included widely promoted “Family Day” school vaccination clinics that aimed to bring in entire families.
Students at T.C. Williams International Academy, which serves immigrant and international children and those who do not speak English, advertised the clinics to one another over the course of the spring semester, said academy history teacher Gabriel Elias. That involved posting on social media sites and filming and publishing short videos — sometimes up to 20 a day.
“The students had a lot of freedom in how they presented the message, but the message was really centered around why getting the vaccine is the right thing to do,” Elias said. “The biggest obstacle seemed to be that immigrant families didn’t feel like it was ‘for’ them … [but] our campaign made it cool.”
In Montgomery County, Meghan McCoy said she was impressed with the smooth operation of the cafeteria-turned-clinic at Blair High School.
“It was just so easy,” she said. “In and out in less than 30 minutes.”
For her, the timing was perfect because she wanted her daughter to get her second shot — with potentially greater side effects — after school was out and her studies were over. Other parents she knows selected earlier vaccinations, with travel plans in mind.
She recalled seeing a number of families choosing to get adults and children vaccinated at once, and said in some cases teenagers helped their parents navigate language barriers. In all, Montgomery County has delivered almost 2,900 first doses at school-based clinics.
She is hoping vaccine clinics will show up in more schools, calling it a brilliant idea. “Parents are already comfortable going there,” she said. “I think this is the way to do it.”