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Southern states lag behind in adolescent vaccination as Northeast increases, one month after FDA cleared vaccines for 12 years and older

Vaccination rates for children ages 12 to 17 have increased in the northeast and lagged in the south, a month since the first Covid-19 vaccines were cleared for those 12 and older, according to a NBC News analysis.

In Vermont, nearly 59 percent of teens received their first dose. In Massachusetts, the number is more than half. And in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, more than 40% of 12 to 17-year-olds have received an injection.

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Meanwhile, young people living in the south are the least likely to have received their first dose. Just over 7 percent of 12 to 17 year olds in Mississippi received their first dose, and less than 10 percent of that age group in Louisiana.

Alabama was at the bottom of the list, with just under 6 percent of children ages 12 to 17 receiving their first dose.

Vaccination hesitation appears to play a key role in low rates in the South, said Dr David Kimberlin, an expert in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Kimberlin said he has personally witnessed an increase in vaccine hesitancy rates among parents in his practice over the past decades. They are not necessarily anti-vaccines, but often parents who have been misled by vaccine myths and are still afraid of vaccines.

“I personally think this is part of a larger challenge that we have in this country, of not knowing who to trust,” he said. “It can be frustrating. You debunk a misinformation problem, and then two or three more pop up. It’s like a mole.”

In the Midwest, teenage Covid-19 vaccination rates for the first dose hover around 25%. Just under a third of teens in Michigan and Wisconsin have received a dose, while less than a quarter of teens in Nebraska and Ohio have been vaccinated.

Rates in Missouri are slightly lower at 19 percent. Kansas City pediatrician Dr. Natasha Burgert predicts that more parents will enroll their children this fall.

“The children will go back to school and the parents will be back to work,” she said. “If a child is exposed, there will be a very practical problem for parents who have to come home from work after an exposure, which is very different from where we were at home.”

NBC News calculated adolescent vaccination rates by subtracting first dose vaccinations for adults 18 years and older from those 12 years and older. Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine was cleared for children as young as 12 years old in May. The analysis also includes historical data for 16- and 17-year-olds, who were able to receive the Pfizer vaccine as early as December. However, most older teens didn’t get the vaccines until early this year, after healthcare workers and the elderly had a chance to get the shot.

There are caveats when comparing states. Small states like Vermont, which has the highest vaccination rate among adolescents, only have about 40,000 adolescents. As a result, the state has fewer overall adolescent vaccinations than California, which has vaccinated a third of its 3 million adolescents.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 7.1 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have received at least one injection of Covid-19.

Last week, CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky urged parents to vaccinate their teens, citing a recent increase in the number of young people hospitalized with the disease.

“I am deeply concerned about the number of adolescents hospitalized and saddened to see the number of adolescents who have required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation,” she said in a statement .

In the first three months of the year, CDC researchers found that nearly a third of adolescents hospitalized with Covid-19 required admission to an intensive care unit and 5% required invasive mechanical ventilation .

“Much of this suffering is preventable,” Walensky said.

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