Maine health care providers began vaccinating young children against COVID-19 on Wednesday as the ongoing surge of infections and deaths showed no signs of loosening its grip on the state.

Federal approval late Tuesday cleared the way for shots to be given to elementary-aged children nationwide, the latest phase of a vaccine rollout that began last winter.

Maine already has received a shipment from the federal government with about 33,900 doses. That is enough for slightly more than one-third of the doses needed to cover the 96,000 5- to 11-year-old children in Maine who are now eligible. More shipments are expected in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Maine reported 660 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and 14 additional deaths, and hospitalizations also remained at near record levels. The rate of new infections in Maine has hovered at a high level for weeks, even as cases and hospitalizations have dropped in much of the country. The majority of hospitalized patients, and the vast majority of critically ill patients, continue to be people who were not fully vaccinated, health officials say.

Young children have experienced fewer cases of severe illness than older patients who get the virus, but health officials are urging families to get their children vaccinated, saying children do face real risks of severe or lasting illness from the virus and can spread the disease to more vulnerable loved ones. Being vaccinated also can mean a return to more normal routines, including visits with older family members, and can prevent children from having to quarantine at home if exposed in school, they said.

“Vaccination is one of the best tools we have available to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and ensure children not only stay safe and healthy but can continue participating in the in-person activities that we know are important for their physical and mental health,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a media briefing.

Some health care providers already were scheduling appointments for younger children on Wednesday, though it will take some time for the rollout to be fully operational at schools and clinics.

“We’re asking parents for a bit of patience,” Shah said. “We know you’ve been waiting so long for your kids to have the chance to get vaccinated. What we’re asking is you wait just a bit longer while all the pieces come into place.”

Nora Schucker, 11, of Gorham looks away while receiving a vaccination from Kate Sawyer, RN, at Maine Medical Partners Falmouth Pediatrics on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Shah said most school-based clinics should start by next week and then build up over the week of Nov. 15.

Providers that will accept appointments soon or are already scheduling appointments include Walgreens, CVS, InterMed, Northern Light Health and MaineHealth. Pediatricians also are prepared to vaccinate patients in their offices in the coming days.

InterMed is hosting a clinic for its patients Saturday in South Portland, and nearly all 400 appointments were quickly filled, InterMed spokesman John Lamb said.

“Parents have been eagerly awaiting the vaccine for this age group and the response has been very strong,” Lamb said.

VACCINATIONS BEGIN

Maine Medical Partners Falmouth Pediatrics, a part of the MaineHealth system, began vaccinating children during a small clinic Wednesday afternoon.

Naomi Schucker of Gorham said her daughter, 11-year-old Nora Schucker, jumped at the chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Shucker accompanied her daughter to the clinic in Falmouth Wednesday afternoon to get the Pfizer shot.

“It’s too bad she had to wear a mask. Otherwise, you would have seen her grinning from ear to ear,” Schucker joked during a phone interview Wednesday evening. “She is super happy and thrilled to get the additional protection.”

Schucker said that her daughter, a sixth-grader at Gorham Middle School, suffered no adverse reactions to the vaccination.

“She has been doing great,” Schucker said. “The only side effect has been extreme happiness.”

Schucker said she has been waiting anxiously for the opportunity to have her child vaccinated. School quarantines have been challenging for parents to cope with, she said. While Nora still will have to wear a mask in school even after she is fully vaccinated, Schucker said knowing that her daughter has that additional layer of protection will give her peace of mind.

Vaccination also means added protection for Nora’s grandparents and other children in their extended family that she may come into contact with.

As for getting the shot in her arm, Nora had no fear, her mother said.

“Nora is in the minority of children her age. She doesn’t mind getting a shot. She barely flinched,” her mother said.

MaineHealth is offering some appointments at pediatrician’s offices, but MaineHealth spokesman John Porter encouraged parents to look for school-based clinics. “Our mass vaccination strategy is our school-based clinics,” Porter said. Clinics are already scheduled in Brunswick, Biddeford, Freeport and dozens of other schools, with more schools expected to be added soon.

In Auburn, Central Maine Healthcare will be offering vaccines to 5- to 11-year-olds at its high-volume site at the Auburn Mall and also will be working with schools, according to a statement from Amy Lee, vice president and chief operating officer at Central Maine Medical Group.

“We hope to have more details on how to book an appointment for children in this age group in the coming days after we receive guidance from the state and verification of how many vaccine doses will be provided to us,” Lee said.

‘EXCITED AND ELATED’

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said the network, which includes Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Mercy Hospital in Portland, expected to receive vaccination supplies for the 5-11 age group on Wednesday, and will begin vaccinations for those ages next week. Jarvis said he’s “excited and elated” the vaccines have been approved, and pediatric vaccinations will “help curb the spread.”

“Children shouldn’t be sick and shouldn’t die from diseases that we can prevent,” Jarvis said.

Public health experts have estimated that Maine’s vaccination rate could increase 2.5-7.5 percent with the addition of the 5-11 age group. While children are less likely than adults to get severe disease from COVID-19, some still do, and schoolchildren are vectors of the disease.

The child formulation is one-third the dosage for adults.

Shah said Wednesday that he has heard some concerns from parents about the vaccine, but it has been proven to be safe and effective. One of the most common concerns is around myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been seen in some cases after the vaccine but is very rare. Nationally, the U.S. CDC is aware of just 877 cases of myocarditis in people under 30 out of 86 million doses of vaccine administered, Shah said. None of those people died and most recovered in a matter of days.

“To me it’s clear the greater risk right now is from the virus, not from the vaccine,” Shah said.

In an effort to encourage and educate families around the vaccine, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Maine Department of Education are launching a video competition in which Mainers 5 to 17 can submit 30-second videos encouraging other children, and their parents, to get the vaccine.

The Maine CDC will promote the winning videos through public service announcements and on social media, and the schools that the winners attend will receive $50,000 for the first-place winner, $25,000 for the second-place winner and $10,000 for third place. Schools can use the money to supplement meals with healthy treats; purchase playground, classroom, gym, sports or music equipment; enhance a school activity; or support a field trip for all students.

“We think kids may be the best messengers to talk about, for example, why a high school kid who got the vaccine thinks their younger brother or sister should get it or why a younger kid can dispel a myth for another kid,” Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said.

HOSPITALIZATIONS STAY HIGH

Since the pandemic began, Maine has logged 105,781 cases of COVID-19, and 1,193 deaths. The seven-day average of daily new cases stood at 473.9 on Wednesday, compared to 462 a week ago and 607.3 a month ago.

The state is reporting that 947,587 Maine people are fully vaccinated, representing 70.5 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents.

Hospitalizations remained high on Wednesday, with 212 Maine people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 76 in critical care and 37 on ventilators. The 14 deaths reported Wednesday included 11 deaths from a review of death certificates from Oct. 17-25.

The deaths include four residents of Androscoggin County, one resident of Aroostook County, two residents of Franklin County, one resident of Lincoln County, four residents of Penobscot County, one resident of Washington County and one resident of York County. Five were women and nine were men.

One was in their 50’s; four were in their 60’s; four were in their 70’s and five were 80 or older.

The CDC is working on an analysis of deaths after noticing a recent uptick and is trying to get a better understanding of the reasons for the trend, Shah said. Records reviews have been ongoing throughout the pandemic, though more cases have recently been identified among individuals who have died. “What we’re working on is to try and quantify this a bit more both on the geography – where people are dying – as well as the age breakdown and to try and get more information on their vaccine status,” Shah said.

Staff Writers Rachel Ohm and Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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