COVID-19 vaccination rates for children still low as risk remains

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Fewer than 20% of children ages 5-11 in North Carolina have received a COVID-19 shot.

Despite the age group being eligible for the Pfizer vaccine for more than a month, only 16% of younger children have gotten vaccinated across the state. Just under half of the teens in the state are vaccinated after becoming eligible in May.

This comes at the same time the percent of overall COVID-19 cases in children has increased.

North Carolinians younger than 18 accounted for around a fourth of all monthly cases statewide since August. Earlier in the pandemic, only around 10% of North Carolina's cases were linked to a child.

Dr. Mary Braithwaite is a pediatrician at Chapel Hill Pediatrics. She said she hears a lot of different concerns from those hesitant including that children aren't at-risk.

"There are many reasons why this vaccine is helpful to children even beyond actually being hospitalized with COVID and it is safe and effective," Braithwaite said. "So I think especially around gathering around the holidays, we should think about all those factors. When children return to school or hope to return to school. We don't want them to have been exposed to COVID."

Similar trends are playing out across the country as children and teens represent the largest per capita percent increase in new cases since the summer.

More than 257,000 North Carolinians younger than 18 have caught COVID-19

The vaccination rate for this youngest group is slightly higher in the Triangle. Wake County reported 33% of children ages 5-11 years old are partially vaccinated and 30% of those 5-11 are partially vaccinated in Durham County.

Meanwhile, with an 8% vaccination rate for 5- to 11-year-olds, Cumberland County is well below the state average.

Dr. Jennifer Green, the Cumberland County health director, said that number could be a slight underestimate because of the exclusion of Fort Bragg vaccinations.

"Our kids throughout the pandemic have had less severe illness, but we saw in August and September and early fall that our kids were also going to the ICU, we saw kids having increased numbers of cases. And so it is critical that for our parents to bring them now," Green said.

Before Thanksgiving, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) offered incentives and created family-specific vaccination sites to drive vaccination rates up.

Last week, NCDHHS released a series of PSAs targeting children ages 5-11 to help spread accurate information to families.

"I am not sure if we have to change our approach to get more parents comfortable with the vaccine. We think we have to keep talking about their concerns, keep addressing their concerns, and continue to show them that we're confident that the vaccine is safe and effective," said Braithwaite.

Green said she believes focusing on the desire to keep children in school could help persuade some families on the fence to get vaccinated.

"Loosen quarantine restrictions, maybe thinking about lifting mask restriction. Those are the things that I think will get us there to get our kids vaccinated if we want our kids to remain in school, want them to be able to take their masks off. We really need to get more of our kids vaccinated," she said.

Nationally, data shows kids and teens are helping to drive up COVID-19 cases, but are just one of the multiple factors. Health experts also point to the estimated 95 million Americans who haven't had a shot, along with relaxed restrictions, waning vaccine immunity and variants.

Green encouraged families who are hesitant to reach out to their pediatricians.

"So we're encouraging families to talk to their health care provider if they need to do that. But the CDC recommendation and our guidance has been really clear. We want every parent or guardian to get their 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated as quickly as possible," she said.

Find a vaccine spot near you: https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/kids/locations
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