Sarasota-Manatee and Florida lag nation in COVID-19 vaccinations for kids 5-11

Anne Snabes
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Children 5-11 years old in Sarasota and Manatee counties are vaccinated against COVID-19 at substantially lower rates than kids nationwide.

In Sarasota County, 10.8% of kids aged 5-11 received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Dec. 15. In Manatee, 9.1% have had at least one shot. Both are well behind the national pace, with 20.5% of U.S. children in that age group at least partially vaccinated as of mid-December, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Florida lags the nation as well. The state reported a vaccination rate Friday of 12% for 5 to 11-year-olds.

“We’re clearly doing worse,” said Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.

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Sarasota and Manatee vaccination rates

A health care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Denver on May 8.

Kids aged 5-11 are eligible to receive two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

In Sarasota County, 2,560 children in this age group have received at least one shot – or 10.8% of the population in the county, according to data obtained by the Palm Beach Post.

The data comes from lawyers representing a consortium of news organizations, including Gannett, the parent company of the Herald-Tribune. The Florida Department of Health stopped making county-level vaccination data for different age groups publicly available in June, so the consortium obtained the data through legal counsel.   

A small number of kids listed a zip code that wasn’t in the county of residence they identified, so the Herald-Tribune didn’t include them in the calculations.

Just more than 1,440 kids aged 5 to 11 in Sarasota County – or 6.1% of the total age group – had received two doses of the vaccine as of Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, 2,554 kids aged 5 to 11 in Manatee County received at least one dose – or 9.1% of the age group – and 1,323 had received both doses – or 4.7%.

Expert recommends kids get vaccinated

Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Epidemiology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, encourages parents to get their kids vaccinated against COVID-19 and to get vaccinated themselves.

She said that kids are at lower risk than someone 65 years or older.  

“But that doesn’t mean that they’re at no risk at all,” she said. “There have been over 8,000 kids in the 5-11 year age category who have been hospitalized nationally.”

In very rare instances, children have died of COVID-19.

She also noted some kids with COVID-19 have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare condition where different body parts can become inflamed, according to the CDC.

When kids get vaccinated, they often have side effects, Rasmussen said, such as pain at the injection site or fever. In most cases, the minor side effects didn’t prevent them from going to school.

“And rarely was it severe enough that they had to go to the doctor,” she said.

Reagan Williams, 6, is held by her mother Rhonda Davie-Williams as she is vaccinated Nov. 15 in Indianapolis. Sarasota and Manatee counties trail the national pace for vaccinations in this age group.

Possible reasons Florida trails

Salemi said local and state policies, public health messaging, and the perception of risk are some of the factors that could potentially affect the vaccination rate. 

“I’d like to think at least public health messaging is a big part of it,” he said. “Are we doing a good enough job to get reliable enough information in the hands of parents who are living in Florida?”

Salemi also noted issues with how vaccination data is reported and how the rates are calculated. For example, the Herald-Tribune calculated the vaccination rates using Manatee and Sarasota counties' population in 2020, but the counties have likely grown since then.

The epidemiologist also said that officials could potentially misattribute someone’s county of residence if they got vaccinated in a different county from where they live. 

Salemi noted, though, that reporting issues can’t be the sole cause of the 8 to 9% discrepancy between Florida and the U.S.  

“Looking at those numbers, it’s safe to say that Florida is probably well below the national average – beyond what reporting could explain,” he said.

Schools facilitate vaccinations

Kelsey Whealy, a spokesperson for Sarasota County Schools, said the school district is partnering with the Florida Department of Health’s Sarasota County office on vaccination efforts.

Whealy said that when vaccinations became available earlier this year, the school district shared the DOH’s vaccination locations with families and employees. The district sent additional updates when vaccinations became available to kids 12 and older, and it hosted several school-based vaccination clinics during the summer and fall semesters.  

“As of yet, we have not had any DOH-hosted, school-based COVID vaccination clinics geared for children ages 5-11,” Whealy said in an email. 

Michael Barber, a spokesman for the School District of Manatee County, said his district also hosted vaccination events for older youth earlier this semester but has not hosted similar events for kids aged 5-11.

“At this point, I am not aware of discussions to offer vaccinations during the next semester, however, with COVID, things are subject to change based on circumstances,” he said in an email.

Palm Beach Post data reporter Chris Persaud contributed to this article. 

Anne Snabes covers city and county government for the Herald-Tribune. You can contact her at asnabes@gannett.com or (941) 228-3321 and follow her on Twitter at @a_snabes.