WASHINGTON — A mixture of misinformation, low Covid-19 vaccination rates among U.S. teens and the spread of a variant causing concern is fueling urgency among policymakers and spurring a new push by the Biden administration to change those trends.
In an interview with NBC News following a public discussion at a Washington, D.C., school, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called the arrival in the United States of the more contagious delta variant in addition to misinformation about the vaccine and apathy among unvaccinated teenagers “concerning.”
“It is very clear that this (misinformation) is real,” Becerra said.
“The next phase of this is getting out into the community, really getting to sit with families, sit with teens, be there, where there's an opportunity,” said Dr. Drew Maurano, who leads a team of medical staff at one of D.C.’s largest vaccination clinics.
The exchange illustrates a deepening concern by some lawmakers and the Biden administration as the new coronavirus variant takes hold in the U.S. after ripping through primary schools in Britain.
And the administration is stepping up its efforts to reach adolescents. This includes the creation last week of a “Covid-19 Student Corps,” or teenagers who agree to serve as community ambassadors to their peers. The administration is also teaming up with social media influencers including Hollywood actors, “mommy bloggers,” the first lady, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and camp associations, Health and Human Services officials said.
The nation's capital city is a prime example of the challenges. In Washington, 30 percent of white residents between 18 and 24 are at least partially vaccinated, but that’s true for just 14 percent of Black residents in the same age group, according to district health data. Just 4 percent of Black children ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated.
“Something is wrong in getting the word out to our young people,” a visibly irritated Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said as she read out the Covid-19 vaccination rates among her city’s teenagers during the recent panel discussion at Anacostia High School.
The delta variant, first identified in India and now dominant in Britain, is spreading more in educational settings than any other the government has reviewed, according to British Health data, and it’s hitting those ages 12 to 20 especially hard. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. doctor, warned in a recent press briefing: “We cannot let that happen in the United States.”
According to U.K. government data, 217 outbreaks of the delta variant had been identified in educational settings, the largest number in any of the settings examined. Israel has also seen several school clusters. The U.K. Health Department has also warned the risk of hospital admission is higher in people with the delta variant.
“In England, we saw this variant spread first among school age children, and then to other age groups,” said Deepti Gurdasani, a British epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London. “It is clear that schools are a major area of spread, when robust mitigations aren’t present,” she said.
“This variant, being more transmissible, more severe and more able to escape vaccines has the potential to change the shape of the pandemic,” she said. Prior restrictions to contain the alpha variant “are completely insufficient to contain this,” she said.
Meanwhile, some Anacostia High students said the vaccine is unimportant to many of their peers while others believe, falsely, it could hurt them.
London Dews, a 17-year-old unvaccinated student told Holmes Norton that social media myths about vaccines implanting tracking chips activated by 5G technology or that the vaccine will turn kids into “zombies” aren’t just fringe.
“One conspiracy is that the vaccine is implanting a chip into us and the government is tracking us. And another one is that this will, the vaccinations will be a start to a zombie apocalypse in the future,” Dews said.
“It's circulating through YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, um, Twitter, you know, the big social medias that we use every day. I think (there are) a lot of people who believe this.”