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50K more North Dakota children eligible for COVID-19 vaccine; 5,700 pediatric doses on the way

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An estimated 50,000 more North Dakota children are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the wake of federal health officials endorsing shots for children ages 6 months to 5 years.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending the vaccine for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. The final sign-off came Saturday from CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and the federal government ordered millions of doses for distribution around the country, The Associated Press reported.

North Dakota has an initial order of 5,700 pediatric doses arriving in coming days.

"The vaccine will be available at over 100 health care provider offices throughout the state, including local public health, pediatric, family practice clinics and pharmacies," state Immunization Program Director Molly Howell said. "Health care providers are in the process of educating staff and updating protocols, so most providers will begin vaccinating children later this week or early next week."

Howell said that "We'll be able to vaccinate about 10% of the population (in the new age category) in the first week," adding that “Many parents of young children have been waiting to have COVID-19 vaccine available.”

Many others are wary of the COVID-19 vaccine, despite assurances from health officials that it's safe. Federal data shows that North Dakota continues to have some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country: 66.5% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated, with the rate for all vaccine-eligible people -- age 5 and older -- at 60.2%. The national averages are 76.8% and 71%, respectively.

Howell acknowledged that vaccine hesitancy on the part of parents is a concern.

"We are expecting pretty low uptake of the vaccine, at least initially," she said, but added that state officials hope skeptical parents will at least talk to medical officials such as their doctor "and weigh the benefits of vaccination with the risk of COVID-19 illness."

“Vaccine has been made widely available in our state and no individual, including children, should face barriers receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations,” Howell said.

There have been 8,457 cases of COVID-19 in North Dakotan children 6 months through 4 years old, with 62 hospitalizations and one death, according to the Health Department.

The shots offer young children protection from hospitalization, death and possible long-term complications that are still not clearly understood, according to the CDC's advisory panel.

Pfizer's vaccine is for children 6 months to 4 years old. The dose is one-tenth of the adult dose, and three shots are needed. The first two are given three weeks apart, and the last at least two months later, according to AP.

Moderna's is two shots, each a quarter of its adult dose, given about four weeks apart for kids 6 months through 5 years old. The FDA also approved a third dose, at least a month after the second shot, for children with immune conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious illness, AP reported.

Vaccine side effects were mild in clinical trials, according to the Health Department. The most common side effects were irritability and pain at the injection site.

Documented COVID-19 cases overall have been increasing in North Dakota in recent months with the onset of highly contagious mutations of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Weekly confirmed cases numbered about 200 at the beginning of April. Last week's total surpassed 1,300, according to the Health Department's pandemic dashboard.

Last year at this time, cases were bottoming out in North Dakota as vaccines took hold, before the onset of the more contagious delta variant in the fall and then omicron early this year.

"We are going exactly the opposite direction of where we were a year ago," state Medical Services Section Chief Kirby Kruger said.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also has been rising in North Dakota, from around 20 a week at the start of April to more than 80 last week. The increased admissions, though well below totals at the height of the pandemic, are a driving factor behind a recent increase in coronavirus transmission risks in North Dakota, according to Kruger.

Fourteen North Dakota counties including Burleigh and Morton are now in the medium risk category, while six counties are at high risk, according to levels determined by the CDC. The agency uses COVID-19 case rates and hospitalization data in its determinations.

More information on COVID-19 vaccine providers and clinics in North Dakota is at https://bit.ly/3N3IMxb. People also can contact the Health Department's Public Health Hotline at 1-866-207-2880 for questions related to COVID-19 and for assistance in scheduling a vaccine appointment.

Reach News Editor Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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