Maine reported 692 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and four additional deaths amid efforts to ramp up vaccinations for elementary-aged schoolchildren.

The state has logged 106,473 cases of COVID-19, and 1,197 deaths since the pandemic began.

The prospect of immunizing children 5-11 means that the state’s overall vaccination rate should climb by up to 7 percentage points in the coming weeks, depending on how many parents have their children inoculated. Federal regulators gave the final approval Tuesday evening to Pfizer’s vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds, who will receive one-third of the dose given to adults. Pfizer is a two-shot regimen spaced three weeks apart.

Caroline Zimmerman, whose 6-year-old son Neal received his first shot at a MaineHealth clinic in Falmouth on Wednesday, said they were “really excited” and “relieved” that the vaccine has become available for their son’s age group.

“He understands that this is the next step back to normal, and to eventually not have to wear a mask at school and after-care,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said Neal didn’t have any side effects Wednesday evening and had good energy when he left for school on Thursday.

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“Vaccination is one of the best tools we have available to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and ensure children not only stay safe and healthy but can continue participating in the in-person activities that we know are important for their physical and mental health,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing Wednesday.

Shah, in a separate media briefing on Thursday in which he appeared with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said that one of the big challenges with the pediatric rollout will be combating misinformation about the vaccine. Rumors have spread about the COVID-19 vaccines, with one of the most common being the false claim that the vaccines can cause fertility problems. The vaccines have no affect on fertility, according to the U.S. CDC.

Shah said misinformation “complicates efforts” by “shifting the conversation away from answering honest, earnest questions” by spreading “bad faith nonsense.”

“Parents end up not knowing what to believe, so they believe nothing,” Shah said. He said one-on-one conversations with pediatricians should help correct misinformation, but it will be a challenge.

A national survey conducted in October by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 27 percent of American families were ready to get their elementary-aged children vaccinated as soon as it’s approved. However, 35 percent say they definitely will not or will only do so if required. One-third are in the “wait and see” category.

Some health care providers already were scheduling appointments for younger children on Wednesday, though it will take some time for the rollout to be fully operational at schools and clinics.

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“We’re asking parents for a bit of patience,” Shah said on Wednesday. “We know you’ve been waiting so long for your kids to have the chance to get vaccinated. What we’re asking is you wait just a bit longer while all the pieces come into place.”

Some clinics started up on Wednesday, with more expected next week and many school-based clinics preparing to offer the first shot before Thanksgiving. Vaccinations are available or will soon be available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and school-based or community-based clinics.

Naomi Schucker of Gorham said her daughter, 11-year-old Nora Schucker, jumped at the chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Schucker accompanied her daughter to the clinic in Falmouth Wednesday afternoon to get the Pfizer shot.

“It’s too bad she had to wear a mask. Otherwise, you would have seen her grinning from ear to ear,” Schucker joked during a phone interview Wednesday evening. “She is super happy and thrilled to get the additional protection.”

Schucker said that Nora, a sixth-grader at Gorham Middle School, suffered no adverse reactions to the vaccination.

“She has been doing great,” Schucker said. “The only side effect has been extreme happiness.”

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To try to encourage youth vaccination, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday announced a video contest in which those ages 5 to 16 can submit 30-second promotional videos about the COVID-19 vaccine. The school of the first-place winner will win $50,000, $25,000 for second place and $10,000 for the third-place winner. The videos are due Nov. 22, and winners will be announced on Dec. 1.

While vaccination rates are certain to increase in the next several weeks, case rates in Maine also continued to be high.

Maine had the 17th-highest rate of COVID-19 cases in the nation on Thursday, with 35 cases per 100,000 population on a seven-day rolling average, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. The national average is 22 cases per 100,000 population. The infection rates in New Hampshire and Vermont also are well above average.

Cumberland County, the most-vaccinated county in the state with 80 percent of its population immunized, had the lowest seven-day total of COVID-19 cases per capita in Maine, at 139.7 cases per 100,000 population. Franklin County, the third least-vaccinated county with 60.8 percent immunized, had the highest case counts, a seven-day total of 566.2 cases per 100,000.

Hospitalizations remained high, with 220 people hospitalized statewide, including 74 in critical care and 37 on ventilators.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that all health care workers at facilities nationwide that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding must have their COVID-19 vaccinations by Jan. 4.

In Maine, most health care workers already were required to comply with a state mandate by Oct. 29, but there were some health care workers who were exempt from the rule, such as school health clinics and group homes for children, which now might have to comply with the federal mandate.

 


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