Cheyenne Goodrich of Norridgewock holds her daughter Margo, 8, while getting her first COVID-19 vaccination at the Augusta Armory on Wednesday Dec. 29, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Slow progress in vaccinating kids aged 5 to 11 could foretell a harder slog getting younger children inoculated both in Maine and across the country when shots likely become available for the latter population this summer.

Only the states of Vermont, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have higher vaccination rates for the 5-11 group, which is the youngest demographic now authorized for COVID-19 vaccines, according to a New York Times tracker. But the 44 percent of fully vaccinated children in Maine has only ticked up by 7 percentage points since early January.

It shows much of the progress comes at first and that getting additional shots into younger children could be a daunting task. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended boosters for children ages 5 to 11 last week at least five months from their last dose. Shots for children under 5 will likely be available by mid- summer after federal approval.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found in early May that 1 in 5 parents across the country want to get their child under 5 vaccinated as soon as possible, while nearly 2 in 5 percent said they will wait. A third of parents said they would not be getting children between the ages of 5 to 11 vaccinated, while 12 percent said they would only do so if required for school. Most parents felt their children were somewhat safe at school.

That perspective, along with relaxed attitudes toward the pandemic, will likely mean Maine will see a quick uptake in vaccines and boosters for young children but a longer haul to advance through the younger populations with initial doses and boosters as the pandemic continues.

Children represent 19 percent of all known COVID-19 cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, and only 1.2 to 4.6 percent of hospitalizations in 25 states. But there is still a risk of outbreaks in schools if rates do not improve by next fall, said Robert Horsburgh Jr., a professor of epidemiology at Boston University.

“Of course when people stop worrying about COVID, they’re not going to bother to go out and get their kids vaccinated,” he said.

Schools have been left to make their own decisions on COVID-19 prevention after Maine dropped recommendations for masking in schools in March. Two months later, its pooled testing program was scheduled to end because the transmissibility of the omicron variant meant the virus was spreading quicker than cases could be detected.

The rising number of cases in the state has caused Portland and Bangor to require masks again this month. There have been 17 outbreaks among schools in the last month, according to Maine Department of Education data.

Parents concerned about their child getting sick should start vaccinating them now to give them as much protection before the next school year, as COVID-19 rates have typically increased in cooler months, Horsburgh said.

“Because by the time a bunch of children have it, it’s going to be too late to send them home,” he said.