As federal health officials warn of an increase in hospitalizations among teenagers with COVID-19, New York City officials are rushing to expand access and counter misinformation to get more kids ages 12 and up vaccinated. 

Last Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio launched “Youth Vax Week” by deploying vaccination vans to parks in each borough and holding block parties with food and music. The mayor enlisted his son, Dante, to DJ. The goal is to spread the facts about the vaccine, while making it both easier and more fun to get the shot. On Friday, the city also opened its first vaccination sites at schools, starting with four in the Bronx. The sites are open to students, as well as their family and friends.

But overcoming hesitancy among teenagers may be especially challenging. 

Valerie Reyna, Director of the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University, said teens are highly susceptible to misinformation because they don’t have as much background knowledge or life experience to evaluate erroneous claims. “Take the problems adults have and magnify them,” she said. “We have to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Knowledge is very, very important, and having a trusted source is important.” 

At the Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, science teacher Emily Rivas has been discussing the coronavirus with her eighth graders since the fall. She started with how the virus attacks cells and is now teaching a unit on how vaccines work. She said her first step was to survey students about what they had heard about the vaccine, and then clear up any misconceptions. 

“I think the biggest misconception was that there was a government chip in it,” she said. “There was metal. That it was causing infertility. It was causing death.”

She also gave students a list of the immunizations they were required to have to go to school, so they understood that getting vaccinated is nothing new. 

“I wanted to give them as much information as possible to make their own decision and not just listen to X adult or Y friend,” she said. 

For Nathaly Duval, 14, that meant pushing back against her dad, who initially told her the vaccine is dangerous. “He was telling me there are magnets inside, you’re going to get sick from it,” she said. “I know it’s not true.”

After talking to her teachers and doing her own research, Duval decided to get the shot. She’s now waiting for her second dose. “I mean, obviously, I didn’t want to get Corona,” she said. 

Paul Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said teenagers are getting misinformation about vaccines from social media, just like their parents. “Once you scare people, it’s really hard to unscare them,” he said. 

Offit said the key to combating misinformation is evidence. When people say they’re worried about the impact on fertility, Offit explains that dozens of women who were taking the vaccine got pregnant during the trials. 

Highbridge Green is not one of the city’s school-based vaccination sites, but principal Kyle Brillante hopes it will be, because of the trust educators have built with the local community. “I imagine we will play a role in helping support families in getting vaccines,” he said. “I would love to, actually. I think that’s the role of a school.” 

The middle school has a predominantly Latino and Black student population, and a smaller percentage of those groups have been inoculated in the city so far compared to white and Asian New Yorkers. The Bronx also lags behind the other boroughs in its vaccination rate. Brillante said he believes schools can help address those disparities. “For the people who have had vaccines and are comfortable sharing their experiences about why, I think that will address some of the differences we see in [vaccination rates by] race,” he said. 

Speaking on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday, de Blasio said the city will open up more school-based sites before the end of classes later this month and through its revamped summer school program called Summer Rising. De Blasio said that more than 118,000 kids over 12 have been vaccinated so far, a higher proportion than the national average.

“I think between now and the second week in September, we will reach a very high percentage of young people because of all the grassroots outreach we're going to be doing throughout the months ahead, well before a child steps into the new school year,” he said. 

The city’s push to vaccinate students comes as the federal government released new data showing an increase in hospitalizations for adolescents with COVID-19 this spring. 

Teens are less likely to get seriously ill from the coronavirus, and relatively few have been hospitalized. Still, according to the new data, adolescents were three times as likely to get hospitalized from COVID-19 than the flu. Hospitalization rates for kids 12 -17 were lower than adults, but higher than children under 11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky called the new data “troubling” and urged young people to get vaccinated.