BISMARCK — North Dakota children 12 and up became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine more than two months ago, but the vast majority of parents haven't signed off on their kids getting the jab.

More than 85% of North Dakota children ages 12-17 had not yet gotten a first or second dose of the COVID-19 shot as of Monday, June 14, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health. Meanwhile, child vaccination rates in neighboring Minnesota and the nation at large are more than double North Dakota's rate.

State immunization coordinator Molly Howell said there are likely several reasons parents have taken their children in for the vaccine. Some simply might not have gotten around to making an appointment or don't see much of need to get their kid vaccinated until closer to the beginning of the school year, Howell said. Other parents may have reservations about the safety of the vaccine or don't believe COVID-19 is a serious illness — sentiments Howell and a consensus of experts view as misguided.

Dr. Joan Connell, a Bismarck pediatrician who serves as the state's field medical officer, said the vaccination rate for children mirrors rates for adults since parents direct their kids' medical care. Close to half of North Dakota adults are fully vaccinated against the virus, but immunization rates have plateaued well below the 50% mark for residents 30-49, the most common ages of parents with children who are vaccine eligible.

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At her practice, Connell said most vaccinated parents have opted for their kids to get the shots, while nearly all unvaccinated parents are turning down the shot for their kids.

Dr. Joan Connell is North Dakota's field medical officer and a pediatrician in Bismarck. Special to The Forum
Dr. Joan Connell is North Dakota's field medical officer and a pediatrician in Bismarck. Special to The Forum

Both Howell and Connell noted that North Dakota has more than enough Pfizer vaccines — the only shot authorized for people under 18.

The two agreed getting children vaccinated should be a high priority for parents given the risks of COVID-19 and the disease's capacity to upend everyday life.

The latest national figures suggest coronavirus-related hospitalizations are on the rise among adolescents, and even though children are generally at a lower risk of serious illness than adults, kids can struggle with COVID-19, Connell said. She added that some children who catch the virus have trouble getting back to their baseline health, including high school athletes who performed at an elite level before their diagnosis.

Howell noted that more than 300 children have died from the respiratory disease across the nation, making COVID-19 more deadly for kids than influenza. North Dakota has reported the death of a 17-year-old from the illness.

North Dakota Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a press conference on March 3, 2021. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health
North Dakota Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell speaks at a press conference on March 3, 2021. Screenshot via North Dakota Department of Health

Connell said children have sacrificed a lot since the pandemic began, and vaccinations present a safe and effective way to bring stability back to kids' lives. Having a COVID-19 outbreak at a summer camp or during fall football can be traumatic, and "we don't need more needless loss," Connell added.

On top of the benefits of the jab for children, Howell said the younger age groups can contribute to the goal of herd immunity from COVID-19 by getting vaccinated. More immunizations in kids translates to a lower likelihood of illness and death for their grandparents, she said.

Since the odds of schools requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students are low, Howell and Connell said it may take time for the adolescent vaccination rate to climb up to the adult rate. Parents may want to consult with their children's pediatricians before vaccinating, which gives Howell hope that more will get on board this summer when kids go to the doctor for other vaccinations or sports physicals.