Twin States make progress vaccinating children, but time runs short

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/30/2021 6:56:11 PM
Modified: 12/31/2021 7:47:35 PM

CHELSEA — The Twin States are making progress in vaccinating children ages 5 to 11, the latest group to become eligible for the shots.

But they still lag behind older people, even as COVID-19 case counts skyrocket and pediatric hospitalizations rise.

While children are less likely to die or be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people in older age groups, the disease still poses a greater risk to children than the flu or other childhood illnesses, said Anne Sosin, a policy fellow and public health expert at Dartmouth College.

“COVID is not benign in children,” she said Wednesday, noting that long-term effects of COVID-19 infection are still unknown.

“A small number of kids with long COVID has long-term implications,” she said. “We really do need kids (to be vaccinated).”

Vermont is leading the country with almost 55%, or 24,000, of children in that age group starting vaccination since early November, when they became eligible, state officials announced on Tuesday. More than 40% of them have gotten both shots.

New Hampshire, for its part, lags behind its neighbor in the percentage of elementary-age children who’ve gotten the shots. About 29%, or 29,000, of New Hampshire children ages 5 to 11 have gotten at least one dose so far, said Laura Montenegro, a spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Last week, New Hampshire announced its first pediatric death associated with COVID-19, and state officials pointed out that children are at risk in the pandemic.

“I mean, you don’t want to use that as the driver to get people vaccinated,” Gov. Chris Sununu said in a Dec. 22 news conference. “But I suppose if people are waking up a little more and realizing the severity for young kids, if that helps them kind of come to that realization, then all the better.”

Pediatric hospitalizations also have been ticking upward of late. Hospitals in New England are averaging about 11 patients ages 17 or younger with COVID-19, which represents a peak for the pandemic so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A recent Granite State Poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 50% of New Hampshire parents of children between 5 and 17 said their children have already been vaccinated, while another 7% said they are likely to get their kids vaccinated.

But about 42% of parents said they are unlikely to get their children vaccinated.

Sosin said she suspects that some parents have chosen not to get their children vaccinated because a common misperception has been that COVID poses no threat to children and access to the children’s vaccines, particularly on the New Hampshire side of the bi-state region, has not been easy.

Even Vermont’s relative success with child vaccination thus far, however, differs by geography. While 59% of Chittenden County children ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, just 40% of those in Windsor County and 33% of those in Orange County have gotten both shots.

Sosin said there have been income disparities in vaccination overall and therefore it would make sense to see them in pediatric vaccination rates. She said that some parents can’t take time off from work to get their children the shots or to care for their children should they have side effects from the vaccine.

“I don’t think we’ve hit true hesitancy yet,” she said. “More resources need to be invested in supporting families to make that decision.”

Chelsea cases

Chelsea parent Krissy Lyon said she opted not to have her 10-year-old daughter, Mekhenna, vaccinated against COVID-19, although her pediatrician recommended it.

“She’s young enough, strong enough,” said Lyon, who has also commented on the pandemic on a local Facebook page. But, she added, “I don’t know what the right answer is, I guess.”

Lyon and her husband also were not vaccinated, she due to medical reasons, including a history of blood clots. She also said that they have vaccinated family members who have contracted the virus and gotten ill.

“I guess it comes down to your immune system,” she said.

But on Dec. 22, Mekhenna came home from school not feeling well, Lyon said. She was tired, had a fever and a popped blood vessel in one eye. Then, the next day, Lyon developed symptoms, including a low-grade fever, body aches and fatigue. By the following day, her husband also developed symptoms, including a cough.

The family obtained PCR tests through a mobile unit at the Burger King in Berlin, Vt. on Tuesday. On Wednesday night, they learned they had tested positive for COVID-19.

On Thursday, Vermont reported a record-high of 1,352 new cases statewide. New Hampshire, which has twice the population of Vermont, reported 1,580 new cases.

The Lyons’ results came following a spike in cases last week at Chelsea Public School, where Mekhenna attends fourth grade. The school of about 100 pupils in grades preK-8 tallied seven positive cases in the partial week ahead of the Christmas holiday, according to the Vermont Department of Health. That’s more than half of the 12 cases the school has had so far this year.

Lyon said she worries that the spike in cases will continue once the students return to school next week.

“I think it’s going to explode,” she said.

Vaccines available

Jamie Kinnarney, superintendent of the White River Valley Supervisory Union, which includes the Chelsea school, on Thursday sent out a message to families urging them to pick up free rapid tests the state of Vermont is offering at Agency of Transportation sites this week and encouraging vaccination.

“I want to remind everyone that vaccination remains one of our most important tools in combating this unprecedented pandemic,” he said. “I encourage all of our parents/guardians to consult with their eligible student’s pediatrician to discuss the pros and cons of vaccination.”

Ben Truman, a spokesman for the Vermont Department of Health, said that vaccination for children makes sense to protect them from illness and the missed school that might result, and to protect their family members from illness and missed work time. Truman said that while vaccinated people may be able to spread the virus, they are less likely to do so.

“It’s important to be vaccinated,” he said. “It’s among the things we know that works.”

Eventually, Sosin said, she hopes other states will follow California in requiring COVID-19 vaccines for schoolchildren. Sosin said she also hopes that schools will employ all the mitigation strategies they can in an effort to mitigate the more transmissible omicron variant. For example, she said supplies of rapid tests should be increased, better masks employed, ventilation enhanced and different lunchroom strategies employed.

Pediatric vaccines are available at various clinics and pharmacies throughout the region. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has been running pediatric COVID-19 vaccine clinics almost daily, adjusting the number of slots available through the patient portal myd-h.org to accommodate the number of patients signing up, said Audra Burns, a spokeswoman.

“We are encouraged by the amount of pediatric vaccine appointments we have seen at our clinics over the past few weeks,” she said. Like Sosin, Burns emphasized that prevention measures have to be combined to be successful: “It is essential for our community to remain vigilant and get the vaccine, get boosted, wear masks, appropriately distance and wash hands.”

More information about pediatric vaccines is online at: healthvermont.gov/covid-19/vaccine/vaccines-children or vaccines.gov. A fixed vaccination site in Claremont also is walk-in offering COVID-19 shots, including for those 5-11, at a former state liquor store on Washington Street from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday-Friday; and Saturdays from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. The site will be closed Jan. 1.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

This story has been updated to clarify a quote from Anne Sosin.




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