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How a curious, well-informed army of children could propel the COVID vaccination campaign

May 12, 2021, 8:12 PM UTC

It’s been said that wisdom can spring from the mouths of babes. As it turns out, convincing skeptical and underserved communities to get COVID-19 vaccines can spring from the moxie of teens.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday authorized Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID vaccine for use in all Americans aged 12 years and over as the current, bizarrely virtual school year nears its end, and states prepare for a return to more normal classroom activities in the fall.

It’s a critical step toward getting as many people vaccinated as possible, with more than 35% of the total U.S. population already fully immunized, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). While younger people typically don’t face the most devastating effects of COVID, they could still carry the coronavirus and spread it to more vulnerable populations. And José Mayorga, a family physician and the executive director and executive medical director of the University of California at Irvine’s (UCI) family health centers, is betting that the kids will be a lot more woke about getting vaccinated than adults, who may still be on the fence in underserved communities. In fact, he’s already seen it play out in real life.

“The other day we were able to vaccinate two teens and their mom. And it was honestly one of the most rewarding moments in my life this year because we got mom convinced because her son, not the mom, her son was the one who said, Mom, we need to consider getting vaccinated,” Mayorga tells Fortune. “The kids did their research. They asked us questions. They got their vaccine, and it was absolutely great and satisfying to see two high school kids and the mom get vaccinated to move past and move forward.”

Mayorga’s role has him oversee the medical care of some 24,000 patients as part of a federally qualified health system with a direct affiliation with UCI. A third of those patients are children, and “the vast majority is mostly Medicaid or Medi-Cal patients with very, very little private insurance,” he says. “And then a percentage of them are uninsured or uninsurable.”

As with so many COVID-related logistics problems, figuring out how to reach these populations and assist them in booking vaccine appointments is critical. Some may not have the technical savvy or capacity to even know how to book an appointment for themselves or family members. “We know, as things rolled out, that technology has been a huge gap for how people schedule appointments for vaccinations,” Mayorga says. “That was a big deal. And so we left that community behind, in my opinion, and so we did our best to try to close that gap.”

Closing the gap included virtual community education sessions that would simply walk local residents through how to use virtual care to manage chronic conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, on-the-ground outreach to minority groups in their native tongues to provide COVID safety advice, and building partnerships with local community leaders to encourage vaccination drives and dispel misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID vaccines. It’s a process that has proven effective in communities across the U.S. in order to garner trust.

Which brings us back to the kids, a central component of any community. Mayorga believes one of the most effective collaborations has been the one struck between his group and local school districts in order to educate, “prime the pump” for the vaccine drive, and register patients for their appointments. That’s precisely how those two teenagers and their vaccine-skeptical mom were given shots.

And it’s not just a professional issue for Mayorga, as someone who grew up in the very California communities he is now serving. “I both committed myself professionally as well as personally to try to address this pandemic because I’ve lost five family members to this,” he says. “And so it’s a big deal to me, because I don’t want any family to lose a loved one unnecessarily to something that we could easily mitigate.”

The hope is the children can help fight lingering vaccine temerity with a big dose of reality.

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