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The Gulf South remains highly undervaccinated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Look at a map showing vaccination rates and the Gulf states are well behind other parts of this country. Now, one of the Gulf's great cities is aiming to raise its rates. New Orleans is among the first in the nation to pass a broad mandate that requires proof of vaccination for most indoor activities, and this includes all children 5 and older. Here's Shalina Chatlani of the Gulf States Newsroom.

SHALINA CHATLANI, BYLINE: On a sunny December day in New Orleans' bustling City Park, hundreds of parents and children line up for the Pfizer COVID-19 shot. They're at a Louisiana Department of Health vaccination clinic for everyone 5 and older. It was loud, and parents trying to keep kids calm.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: It's OK. It's OK.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ow.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: Yes.

CHATLANI: Some did not want to be there.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: No, Mommy.

UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: It's OK.

CHATLANI: Five-year-old Vivian Dominguez covered her eyes when she was put in the hot seat but wasn't so shy after.

VIVIAN DOMINGUEZ: I got my shot.

CHATLANI: (Laughter) How did it go?

VIVIAN: Good.

CHATLANI: Yeah?

VIVIAN: I loved it. It didn't even hurt one bit.

CHATLANI: Vivian's mom, Isabella Rivera, changed her mind about getting her daughter vaccinated after having taken a wait-and-see approach.

ISABELLA RIVERA: Kind of wanted to see if other kids had really bad reactions first, but we really do have to do it. We can't wait.

KIM HOOD: You know, it's a difficult reality to accept. It's sort of like the younger the child, the more questions a parent may have.

CHATLANI: Kim Hood is with the Louisiana Office of Public Health. Nationwide, 23% of 5- to 11-year-olds have gotten at least one shot. But in Louisiana, it's less than half that figure. This as cases and hospitalizations are spiking again.

HOOD: We are not where we want to be and not where we need to be.

CHATLANI: The city of New Orleans has had a vaccine mandate for adults since August, but in early December, the city expanded it to all above the age of 5. Children will need both shots by February to stay enrolled in school unless they file for a formal exemption.

Most states in the region have rejected broad mandates. Meanwhile, health officials continue promoting the safety of vaccines for kids and are hoping individual pediatricians can persuade hesitant parents.

JOHN GAUDET: But after age 5, your visits to the pediatrician is actually much more infrequent.

CHATLANI: John Gaudet is a pediatrician in Hattiesburg, Miss. He says doctors don't always have the chance for those face-to-face conversations. And right now, a lot of parents he is seeing are saying no to the shot. He's heard all kinds of misinformation, including the mistaken belief that kids are immune to COVID.

GAUDET: When it first started in early 2020, it was regarded as an illness of people who were very old. But no more. This is a pediatric illness.

CHATLANI: That's one of the many reasons New Orleans put its mandate in place. Many parents at the event at City Park said it was the mandate that convinced them.

DONNA POWELL: I would've waited longer - yes...

CHATLANI: Really?

POWELL: ...Yes - to see what the effect was going to be.

CHATLANI: Donna Powell brought her 7-year-old daughter, Alana, who was a bit nervous. But they called upon their faith.

ALANA: Jesus Christ, save me.

POWELL: Jesus Christ is the only one that can save you. Now, come on. Sit down.

ALANA: Save me. Don't make me do this.

CHATLANI: Alana clenched her teeth for the jab but was pleasantly surprised.

ALANA: That don't hurt.

CHATLANI: How'd it go?

ALANA: That don't hurt.

CHATLANI: Yeah.

In New Orleans, when it comes to adults, more than 90% have gotten a shot. And for 5- to 17-year-olds, twice as many have gotten the shot compared to elsewhere in the state.

For NPR News, I'm Shalina Chatlani in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.