Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah speaks at a press briefing in Augusta on June 30, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah made an impassioned plea to parents on Wednesday that they get their young children vaccinated, saying it would provide a return to normalcy and protect their children from a devastating virus.

His message, which was directed at the parents of 5- to 11-year-olds, comes one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on giving the vaccine to that age group. Preparations are already being made to begin giving the shots at pharmacies, schools, clinics and doctors’ offices, with appointments becoming available in the coming days.

The vaccine had proven effective and safe in clinical trials for children, Shah said, and the medical community is functionally unanimous in its support for vaccinating young children. And just as for adults, the vaccine’s side effects in children are miniscule compared with what COVID-19 can do to the body, Shah said.

“That vaccine can make a big difference in your child’s life,” Shah said. “Children can and do become seriously ill from COVID-19.”

The vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 is one-third the dose of that given to those 12 and older. Shah referred to it as a “fun-sized” vaccine. Like the vaccine for other doses, it will be free to all Mainers.

There are signs that a significant portion of people are reluctant to get their children vaccinated.

About 55 percent of Americans with children younger than 12 planned to get the COVID-19 vaccine for their children when it became available, according to a Gallup poll released last month. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from last month found that 27 percent of parents of 5- to 11-year-olds were eager to get their children vaccinated as soon as it is authorized.

Shah said he was unsure how Maine compared, but noted that polls conducted last year had underestimated just how many people would get the shot. And given that Maine continues to be one of the most vaccinated states, he is hopeful it will lead the way in this newly approved age group.  

He understands concerns from parents that the vaccine is different from others because it is new. Opponents of such vaccines often reference the federal Food and Drug Administration’s emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech doses for 5- to 11-year-olds rather than the agency’s full approval.

Yet with a global pandemic that continues to sicken and kill people across the state, the stakes are too high to wait, Shah said.

“Waiting comes with a risk that their child may be exposed to COVID-19 and suffer some of the consequences that, sadly, we’ve seen in our state,” Shah said.

There had been 7,428 COVID-19 cases in Maine children 5-11 out of Maine’s 79,000 residents in that age group, Shah said, meaning that one in 11 children in that age group had now contracted COVID-19.

Of those cases, 41 children in that age group have ended up in the hospital, with 12 requiring intensive care.

He noted that he had heard from numerous doctors, pediatricians, family practitioners, nurses and specialists across Maine and they were unanimous and were going to get their own children vaccinated when it became available.

“These are folks that we trust to care for kids,” Shah said. “We trust them for everything else. Why not trust them for the vaccine?”

Besides just protecting children, getting them vaccinated can also protect the rest of the family and others in the community, Shah said.

“It makes, for example, the holiday gatherings that we are all looking forward to that much safer,” he said.

While Maine’s children will not be able to be fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving, they will be able to receive the partial protection of the first shot. Children who get their first shots in the coming weeks will be able to be fully vaccinated by Christmas.

About 80 percent of all those 12 and older in Maine — the only group eligible for the shots until Tuesday — have received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Maine CDC.

Shah continuously emphasized the return to normalcy brought by the vaccine, including less disruption to school schedules. If vaccinated students are close contacts of someone with COVID-19, they do not need to quarantine if they don’t have symptoms

“Kids have experienced a lot of disruption since March of 2020,” Shah said. “Getting them vaccinated will make their lives more predictable and help restore a sense of stability.”