FARGO — More children are catching the coronavirus and becoming hospitalized in the Fargo-Moorhead area and across the U.S. And because younger kids can't be inoculated, local health officials on Tuesday, Aug. 31, urged adults to get the shot.

With the highly contagious delta variant circulating, the number of COVID-19 cases in Cass and Clay counties is steadily increasing largely among the unvaccinated, including children under 12 who cannot receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Children are less likely to become hospitalized due to the virus, but hospitals in both North Dakota and Minnesota are admitting kids infected with COVID-19.

"We have an opportunity to act now to do our best to prevent strain to our health care systems, to keep children in school where we know they learn and thrive best and to protect one another," Dr. Tracie Newman, a pediatrician and health officer with Fargo Cass Public Health, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday. "Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination and are largely at the mercy of the adults in their community."

Nationwide, an average of 338 COVID-19 hospital admissions occurred in last last week among 10 to 17 year olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In North Dakota, three children ages 19 and under were hospitalized as of Tuesday, according to state figures.

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North Dakota had more than 380 known active positive cases among ages 0 to 19 as of Tuesday, specifically 147 cases among ages 0 to 5 and 171 positive cases among ages 6 to 11, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Newman highlighted a CDC case study in which an unvaccinated, COVID-19 positive elementary school teacher in California infected half of the students in her classroom.

The teacher worked for two days before receiving a positive test. She was masked most of the time but removed it to read books out loud to her class. Twelve of her students were infected, many of whom sat in the first few rows of desks closest to her.

Sanford Health in Fargo currently has two pediatric inpatients positive with COVID-19, but the hospital is preparing for more children to be hospitalized, said Dr. Doug Griffin, medical officer and vice president of Sanford Health Fargo.

Because in-person learning is the most beneficial for students, officials stressed that schools should implement mitigation strategies, like masking and social distancing, to keep children from becoming infected. Many schools are back in session, with some mandating masks, like the Fargo and Moorhead school districts, while others are recommending them, like West Fargo Public Schools.

Adolescents ages 12 and up should get vaccinated, health officials said.

North Dakota lags behind other states in its COVID-19 vaccination rate. A little more than 48% of North Dakotans are fully vaccinated. Among North Dakotans ages 12 to 18, 23% had been fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the health department.

Vaccination rates among Minnesota youth are close to double that of North Dakota. As of Monday, 42% of children ages 12 to 15 were fully vaccinated, as well as 52% of adolescents ages 16 to 17.

Last year in Minnesota, 5% of reported positive cases occurred in children ages 10 and under, but that rate has more than doubled this year for children in the same age group, said Becky Schmidt, an epidemiologist with Clay County Public Health.

All the health officials who spoke at Tuesday's news conference urged people to talk with their doctors about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Please get the COVID-19 ... vaccine as soon as possible," Griffin said. "They are safe and effective, and our best way out of this pandemic."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.