BISMARCK — Schools nationwide are back in full swing for in-person learning this fall, and more than 50% of adolescents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are inoculated; however, the number of youth getting vaccinated in North Dakota and South Dakota is well behind the national rate.
Children under 18 must receive parental approval to become vaccinated, and the hesitancy among adults may be stifling youth COVID-19 vaccine rates.
In an article published by the American Academy of Pediatrics last week, 1,700 parents nationwide participated in a survey asking whether they intended to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, and less than 50% said they are likely to do so. Many of these parents, who were surveyed in February and March, indicated they wanted to "wait and see" about getting their child inoculated.
Few children nationwide have died from COVID-19 complications, and many who do become infected are asymptomatic and do not require hospitalization. However, experts know little about the lingering long-term side effects the illness could have in children. Health officials, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have urged school districts to implement a mask mandate to mitigate the spread, though many schools have continued to forgo the recommendation.
A reliance on remote learning last year hindered many students' learning and mental health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes the importance of in-person learning for students, noting that the COVID-19 vaccine is the "leading public health strategy" to end the pandemic, and promoting it can help students stay in school. Children under 12 years of age are still ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
In the Dakotas, the number of youth getting vaccinated is well below the rate of the general population.
In North Dakota, about 33% of children 12-18 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state's latest data. This is considerably lower than North Dakota's overall one-dose rate of 54%.
Throughout the summer, North Dakota encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated during appointments for other routine vaccines, hoping the provider would have a conversation about the COVID-19 vaccine with the family, said Molly Howell, state immunization program manager.
As of Friday, Sept. 17, more than 30% of North Dakota's active cases were among adolescents under 20 years of age, according to Department of Health data.
Some schools across North Dakota are hosting pop-up vaccine clinics to offer the influenza vaccine as well as the COVID-19 vaccine, Howell said. Parents must consent prior to their child to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and the shot is not required for students in North Dakota school districts.
The North Dakota Department of Health is working to provide scientific information to help inform parents about the vaccine and reduce hesitancy, Howell said. The state is also determining the best way to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to children under 12 once it becomes available. The department will likely work with pediatricians and health care providers to have conversations with patients and their families about the vaccine.
South Dakota is seeing a similar rate to its northern counterpart among its youth, with 33% of residents ages 12-16 who have received one or more doses of vaccine and 38% of its 16-17 year-olds vaccinated. The state's overall one-dose rate is 63%.
Minnesota's youth vaccination rate is significantly higher than the Dakotas, with 53% of 12-15 year-olds and nearly 60% for 16-17 year-olds having received at least one dose. However, it is still below the state's goal of at least 70% to 80%, said Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.
"We want students to be able to participate in activities and athletics. We want them to have as many opportunities as possible without the fear of getting sick or have any serious illnesses as a result of COVID," Mueller said.
Over the summer, the state launched a campaign called "Vax to School," which encouraged students and families to get the vaccine before school started.
All schools in Minnesota are doing in-person learning, and there have been mass outbreaks at least two schools in the state, Mueller said.
"We are all relying on one another in order to continue to ... have safe in-person learning and the safety, health and wellness of our students, staff and families," Mueller said. "We're reliant on each other to work towards eradicating COVID-19.