The Delta variant has brought renewed concern about the risk COVID-19 poses for our children. A recent CDC study indicated that since the rise of the Delta variant, there has been a tenfold increase in hospitalizations for children ages 0-4. It also showed that hospitalizations for unvaccinated adolescents were 10 times higher than for fully vaccinated youth. These numbers demonstrate the alarming and increasing impact of COVID-19 on the health and safety of children.

And Maine is no exception. Cases and hospitalizations in children and youth have increased exponentially over the last month here in Maine. Students are once again experiencing education disruption caused by outbreaks. Despite our collective fatigue, COVID-19 continues to present a clear threat to our wellbeing. This is especially true for children, many of whom are not yet eligible for vaccination.

The most recent numbers in our state are shocking. Maine has the 7th highest percentage of child cases since the pandemic began, with over 17,500 Maine children contracting COVID-19 to date. Youth under age 20 make up the greatest share of new cases in Maine in the last week. Only April 2021 was worse than this September in the number of cases for youth under age 12.

Fortunately, we know what we can do to protect Maine children right now, and we all have a part to play in it.

Over the summer, the CDC issued guidance for schools on safe operations during the ongoing pandemic. The Maine Department of Education supported that guidance with the expectation that schools would follow it. Yet ultimate decision-making around implementation fell locally to school boards, some of which chose to follow the guidance, while others did not.

Two key components of the guidance are universal masking and vaccination for all eligible students and staff. This was reinforced by a recent CDC study, showing case rates in children were two times greater in counties where schools did not require universal masking compared to counties where schools had universal masking protocols. For the month of September, the Maine Department of Education reported over 2,500 cases and 108 outbreaks in schools. Families, schools, and communities must all work together to ensure students can safely remain in school this fall. Learn how you can do your part @healthychildren.

As an individual, there are steps you can take. Getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in large groups are important ways to reduce the spread of the virus in your community. If you are a parent with concerns around vaccination for your eligible children, reach out and have that conversation with your pediatrician.

Protecting children starts as early as pregnancy. Women who are pregnant are at an increased risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19 and are at greater risk of experiencing negative birth outcomes, including preterm birth. Getting vaccinated is a safe and important way for mothers to protect themselves and their unborn child.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also taken a toll on mental health, leaving many youth feeling a sense of loss, even as things start to return to normal. Parents should check in with children often and watch for signs of stress. Learn more about how you can support youth mental health.

While we are all weary from the ongoing battle against COVID-19, there is hope on the horizon. In Maine, 85% of adults and 64% of Maine youth ages 12-17 have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Later this fall, approval is expected for a vaccine for children 5-11. Younger children react well to vaccinations. The AAP strongly recommends vaccination for all eligible children. For those at greater risk, boosters are becoming available to increase protection from the virus.

Mainers are resilient. We are used to hard winters and difficult economic times. And we love our small towns and communities. Now is the moment to channel that resilience and that sense of community, to pull together and protect one another, especially our children, who are the future of Maine.

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