White House COVID Task Force Head Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith Says Vaccinating 12-15 Year Olds Is Essential

Washington, DC - May 13: 15, Kymberly Vandergrift, 15, of DC, receives the vaccine. Children's National Hospital gave the COVID-19 vaccine to its first batch of 12-15 year old children Thursday morning, May 13, 2021. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

White House COVID Task Force Head Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith Says Vaccinating 12-15 Year Olds Is Essential

The physician who leads the Biden Harris Equity Task Force on COVID-19 says vaccinating younger people is key to fighting this pandemic.

UPDATED ON : MAY 14, 2021 / 04:14 PM

Written by Jamila Bey

The Biden-Harris Administration has been working to ensure COVID-19 vaccination access to all Americans, and just this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in Americans 12-15 years of age.  More than 17 million adolescents are now eligible to be protected against the virus which has killed nearly 600,000 Americans to date.

Earlier this year, the White House tapped Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, to lead the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. The Task Force is part of the government-wide effort to identify and eliminate health and social disparities that result in disproportionately higher rates of exposure, illness, hospitalization and death related to COVID-19.

Its mission is to advise the administration about the inequities caused or worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and for preventing such inequities in the future.

Dr. Nunez-Smith is an associate professor of internal medicine, public health, and management at Yale University. She is also one of the nation's leading experts on disparities in healthcare access, and since the pandemic began, she has spoken out about the unequal burden borne by Black communities around the country.  

She says it’s great news that 12-15-year-olds are already getting vaccinated. “Seventeen million new folks in our country are eligible for vaccinations, and half of them are people of color. In terms of access and ease of ability to connect with vaccination, this is top priority for the Biden Harris Administration,” she told BET.com.

Nunez-Smith explained that this administration got up to speed in record time in developing the infrastructure that would allow more people to get vaccinations and to eliminate the roadblocks to easy access.

RELATED: Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith Explains Why the White House’s Multiple Vaccine Initiatives Are Starting At The Community Level

“That includes those mass vaccination sites, the community vaccination centers, all of them located in areas that have been hard hit and are at high risk with COVID-19,” she said. “And when we look at the data from there we see that 60% of vaccinations- over six million administered through those FEMA friendly run sites have gone to people of color. We looked at the community health centers, and all 1,400 community health centers in the country are eligible. 

“Now we see that really approaching 80% of vaccinations given through the community health center program have gone to people of color,” she continued, “and then of course the federal retail pharmacy program. So we now have 40,000 pharmacies in our program. Over 40 percent of American pharmacies in some of the neighborhoods and communities that have been hardest hit.”

While there’s much good that has already happened, Dr. Nunez-Smith says there’s still much to be done to keep the country safe. 

“Ninety percent of folks in the country live within five miles of a vaccination site, and  there are more than 80,000 places you can get vaccinated, but five miles is still an issue if you don't have transportation,” she said. "So the administration is thinking through some of those issues as well. And there’s now a partnership with Uber and Lyft.  They're donating rides to get people between May 24 And July 4 vaccinated.”

Admittedly, there are still barriers especially when it comes to figuring out where to go.  Dr. Nunez-Smith says there are a few programs that address the population that may not be as tech savvy.

She said the federal government has launched a new informational website, Vaccines.gov, and people can also text their ZIP code to 438829 to receive a text with the three closest locations that have available vaccine in stock.

Pfizer’s studies have shown that the COVID-19 vaccination is 100% effective in the 12-15 age group.  Something Dr. Nunez-Smith says is greatly encouraging.  

“I always say it does get us close to zero, but no one's gonna say it's absolute,” she said. “We know that vaccinating people quicker, and vaccinating more people will help prevent variants emerging and new mutations so it’s incredibly important. But for the young folks have missed out on a lot in this pandemic, and so being able to connect them back to a more normal childhood is super exciting.”

Another encouraging development in the fight to eradicate this pandemic is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcement that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks in most situations. 

Dr. Nunez-Smith says it’s important to recognize that in a community, everyone should do their part to try to keep everyone else safe. 

”Not everyone can get vaccinated so when as many people who can get vaccinated do get vaccinated, that's when we start to see really positive returns for all of us in terms of getting back to our normals, but also in terms of people not being in the hospital, and not losing lives. And that's why even the President has said that the charge is to get 70 percent of adults vaccinated by July 4.  So definitely more work to do.” 

She did mention that exceptions do exist when it comes to vaccinated people and their masks.  

“We already know for people who are immunocompromised that the vaccines may not provide that same level of protection. If you're immunocompromised talk to your doctor before taking the mask down.”

Dr. Nunez-Smith explains that the math is encouraging, but not enough to rest. “Among seniors we're at 85% of those folks having gotten at least one dose. But we're not yet at 50% of those under 65 getting vaccinated, but we are very close to that in terms of the number of adults who have had one dose at least.”

RELATED: COVID-19 In 2021 -- The Latest Updates, Facts And News Impacting The Global Black Community

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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