AUGUSTA, Maine — The number of Maine kids getting vaccinated against COVID-19 has slowed in recent weeks even as cases surge heading into 2022 and the highly contagious omicron variant takes hold.
While the vast majority of COVID-19 cases among kids are not severe, low vaccination rates create more opportunities for the virus to spread and challenge schools working to limit infections next semester. Health officials say access to the vaccine has improved, but acknowledge difficulties in persuading parents to get it.
“We know that there are corners of the state where we’ve got to do more,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said last week. “Hesitancy — or I should just say parents with questions about the vaccine — [is] a challenge.”
Maine’s vaccination rate among children between the ages of 5 and 11 remains higher than most U.S. states, although it varies widely between counties, from just 15 percent in Piscataquis County to nearly 60 percent in Cumberland County.
Statewide, 37 percent of kids here have had at least one dose, trailing only Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to federal data. But while more than 28,000 Maine kids between the ages of 5 and 11 got first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in November, the pace slowed to only around 9,000 in December. Roughly 60,000 kids in that age group remain unvaccinated.
The slowdown in vaccine administration is not unique to Maine. In Vermont, where 54 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 have received at least one dose, the number of daily first doses administered to kids in that age group fell from more than 1,000 per day in mid-November to around 250 per day the week before Christmas.
It also reflects the findings of polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation this fall, which found that, although some parents — about 30 percent nationwide — planned to get their kids the vaccine as soon as possible, the plurality planned to wait and see. A bit more than a quarter of parents nationwide said they definitely did not plan to get their kids vaccinated.
“If you follow childhood immunizations in the state of Maine, there is a growing population of parents that are skeptical about vaccination in general,” said Dr. Laura Ryan, a pediatrician with Northern Light Mercy’s pediatric practice in Windham.
Prior to the pandemic, declining vaccination rates for common childhood vaccines drove the Maine Legislature to eliminate religious and philosophical exemptions for mandatory vaccinations for public schools. Activists attempted to overturn the law in a people’s veto referendum, but Maine voters rejected their effort by a 73-27 margin in March 2020, shortly before the onset of the pandemic. The COVID-19 shot is not mandatory for schools.
Compared with other vaccines, the relative newness of the COVID-19 vaccine is a concern for some parents who worry about their children being the first to get vaccinated, Ryan said. But she points out that clinical trials for the vaccine in children younger than 12 began nearly a year ago — making kids who get the vaccine now far from the first.
Justin, 10, gets his first COVID-19 vaccination at the Augusta Armory on Wednesday Dec. 29, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Parents also seem to have more preconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine than other vaccines their children receive, said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a Yarmouth-based pediatrician. There is no evidence that the vaccine could interfere with a child’s future development or fertility, but those are among parents’ misconceptions, she said.
The relative lack of severity among children — just 37 kids younger than 10 have been hospitalized with the virus since the start of the pandemic in Maine out of roughly 14,000 who have tested positive — has also led some parents to feel less urgency about the vaccine, Blaisdell said. But she notes that there are other reasons for kids to get vaccinated. Children who are not hospitalized can still develop long COVID, with symptoms persisting for months after initial infection.
Even absent severe disease, kids can still transmit the virus to others, and getting vaccinated can make it less likely that they have to quarantine and miss out on school, sports or time with friends and family.
“Children’s lives have been incredibly disrupted by this pandemic, and we all want their lives to get back to something close to the new normal,” Blaisdell said.
The risk of severe illness among kids is also not zero. Hospitalizations among children have increased this fall as more Maine kids have been infected with the virus.
Eight kids younger than 12 were hospitalized with COVID-19 in December, according to Maine CDC data, a record for a single month. As of Wednesday, three Maine children were in intensive care units with COVID-19, Shah said. Those numbers could increase if more kids are infected with the highly contagious omicron variant.
Maine’s strategy to vaccinate young children prioritized school-based vaccine clinics, with the state, school districts and local health care providers joining forces to offer kids the shot with their parents’ permission. In some districts, more than 95 percent of students were vaccinated as of early December, but in others that figure remains less than a quarter.
When the vaccine was first made available to adults last spring, there was an initial surge in demand, followed by a lull, Shah said. But vaccine uptake slowly rose again over the summer, several months after vaccines became widely available.
“We hope that the same thing will happen with respect to parents and their kids,” he said.
The state is planning to support more school clinics in the spring, Shah said. Lisbon Public Schools, which currently has among the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the state, is among those with a clinic planned for early January. More pharmacies, pediatricians’ offices and federally qualified health centers now offer the vaccine for kids, as do large walk-in vaccine sites in Sanford, Auburn, South Portland and Augusta.
Cheyenne Goodrich of Norridgewock brought her three kids to the Augusta Armory clinic for first doses on Wednesday. The walk-in clinic setup was “extremely convenient,” she said and, while the kids were nervous about getting the shots, each one went smoothly. The younger kids got to pick prizes afterward.
While the vaccine is generally accessible, making it more convenient could still help parents out, said Blaisdell, the Yarmouth pediatrician. She and other doctors encourage parents with questions about the vaccine to consult a pediatrician.
“Children and COVID vaccinations is going to be a very tough nut to crack,” she said, “and I encourage parents to continue to talk to those people that they trust.”