Cases of COVID-19 among children are rising far faster than any other age group in Maine, raising concerns among pediatricians that children are spreading the virus to older and more vulnerable residents while also facing risks to their own health.
Over the past month, Maine’s overall seven-day case average has risen 49 percent, from 463 on average in late October to 688 cases on average this week, according to data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Among people under the age of 20, however, the increase has been 83 percent during that time, more than 100 cases a day on average.
The larger increase among children makes sense as they also have the lowest vaccination rates. Children between the ages of 5 and 11 have only been eligible to be vaccinated for a few weeks, and children under the age of 5 are still not eligible. By comparison, Mainers with the highest vaccination rate – 60-79-year-olds – have seen the number of cases rise by about 19 percent in the last month.
Children and young adults sometimes become seriously ill from the disease, although the chances are lower than among older age groups. Even if they do not get sick, children can play a big role in keeping the virus transmission line going and can sometimes do so unknowingly because they are not showing symptoms.
“It’s the same with the flu. Children are important transmitters, ”said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, health director for MaineHealth, the state’s largest health network. “Even if they do not die or become ill, they are carriers and often silent carriers.”
The longer the virus is able to spread, the greater the chance that other variants can also develop. Some could be worse than the highly contagious delta variant that is dominating right now, and some may even prove to be vaccine-resistant. The Associated Press reported last week that estimates from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a collection of university and medical research organizations, suggest that vaccines can make a big difference.
The latest estimates from the name show that from November to March 12, 2022, vaccination of a high percentage of 5- to 11-year-olds could avert about 430,000 COVID cases in the total U.S. population if a new variant did not emerge.
Dr. Gretchen Pianka, a pediatrician with Central Maine Pediatrics, said some of the recent rise in infection among young people is likely a function of fatigue. Parents have been constantly making decisions for the past year and a half on how best to keep their children safe, but schools are completely open now and leisure activities are far more prevalent than a year ago.
“The families are relaxed,” she said. “They think, ‘I have a healthy baby and they should be fine,’ and it can be difficult to widen that lens.”
Pianka said it is true that children have had a lower risk of serious illness, but she has seen young patients become “super sick.”
“And we still do not have a sense of the long-term effects,” she said.
The trend of increasing infection among children is also happening across the country. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report this week that from last week showed that pediatric cases of COVID-19 have increased by 32 percent from two weeks earlier. It was the 15th week in a row that cases among Americans 18 years or younger have been over 100,000.
At least some of the virus spread has taken place in schools and recreational activities in Maine. During the last school year, many communities took measures to limit the number of children in a classroom, and mask mandates were almost universal. Now fewer measures are in place, though many schools still require masks.
Over the past 30 days, 5,181 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in public schools, and 200 schools have seen an outbreak, meaning at least three cases are epidemiologically linked.
According to US Census data, there are approximately 280,000 residents of Maine under the age of 20. That is about 21 percent of the population. Since the pandemic began, there have been 26,524 cases in that age group, or 22.5 percent of all cases. But that number has been steadily rising lately. Younger people make up a higher percentage of cases than ever before.
The Maine CDC has also recorded 76 hospitalizations among those under 25, which is just as specific as the agency breaks down COVID-19 patients by age. Maine has not had any pediatric COVID-19 deaths, but nationwide, at least 731 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in people aged 18 or younger, according to the US CDC.
Dr. Mills said previous studies have shown that with infectious diseases, especially when vaccines are scarce, it is wise to vaccinate children first because they are the biggest spreaders. This has not happened with COVID-19 because it took many months for federal officials to approve vaccines for children.
The vaccine has only been approved for 5- to 11-year-olds since the beginning of the month. Those between the ages of 12 and 15 have been eligible since mid-May.
The vaccination rate among 12- to 19-year-olds in Maine is 62.6 percent, or about 5 percentage points lower than the state’s total rate. Among 5- to 11-year-olds, 26 percent have received the first doses so far. Vaccines have not been in use long enough to help curb the spread among that age group.
But as has been the case during the entire state’s vaccination effort, people are far less likely to be vaccinated in rural, inner Maine counties. For example, 77 percent of all Cumberland County residents aged 12 to 19 are fully vaccinated, but only 43 percent of Franklin County residents in that age group are.
Among 5- to 11-year-olds, 45 percent in Cumberland County have received a first dose, while only 8 percent of elementary school-age children in Somerset County have received one.
Pianka said she still hears from parents who have concerns about vaccinating their children. She said she listens to these concerns and, if necessary, removes any misinformation.
“I tell them it only does one thing and one thing,” she said. “It sends a message to cells that say ‘Make antibodies to protect against this virus.’ That’s all it does.”
An example of a concern, she said, is the risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Early studies of the vaccines showed a small number of cases of this condition.
However, Pianka said that subsequent studies have shown that the risk of myocarditis is 10 times greater for those receiving COVID-19 than the general population, and the risk for those who have been vaccinated is actually lower than the risk level for the general population. at the moment.
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