State-run COVID-19 mass vaccination sites at Stony Brook University and SUNY Old Westbury began inoculating children ages 5 to 11 on Saturday, as New York pushes to vaccinate more people amid a rise in coronavirus cases on Long Island and statewide.
On Friday, the seven-day average of COVID-19 tests that came back positive passed 3% on Long Island for the first time since September, and topped 8% in the low-vaccination Finger Lakes region upstate.
The Stony Brook and Old Westbury vaccination sites are in addition to pediatricians’ offices, pharmacies, health centers and other locations that began offering the vaccine after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Nov. 2 authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids 5 to 11.
"It’s very important for children to get vaccinated," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of public health and epidemiology for Northwell Health. "There are  million of them. It’s causing problems in the schools, and they bring the disease home and spread it to other family members. It can cause outbreaks. If we really are going to get these numbers down, then that large segment of the population clearly needs to be immune and vaccinated."
The two Long Island sites are among 10 mass-vaccination sites statewide now offering the vaccine to children 5 to 11. For an appointment, go to: covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.
Many parents, even those who are vaccinated themselves, are hesitant to get their young children inoculated. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released Oct. 28 found that only 27% had planned to get their children 5 to 11 vaccinated right away, 33% planned to "wait and see" and 30% did not plan to get them inoculated. More than 7 in 10 parents said that they worried about the vaccine's potential long-term effects or side effects.
Parents have concerns
One concern of parents is myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that in rare cases has occurred after vaccination, primarily in adolescent boys and young adult men, according to the CDC. No cases have been confirmed in kids 11 and younger.
But, Farber said, the condition "is readily reversible in the overwhelming majority of cases" with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen. And, he said, "the risk of getting serious myocarditis is much higher with COVID than it is with the vaccine. So parents should not compare the risk of the vaccine to nothing. They need to compare the risk of the vaccine to when a child gets COVID."
No children have died of myocarditis linked to a vaccine, he said. At least 614 children have died of COVID-19 as of Nov. 4, and about 25,000 have been hospitalized, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Twenty New Yorkers died Friday of COVID-19, including one each in Nassau and Suffolk. Thirteen people died upstate, where vaccination rates are much lower than on Long Island and where death and hospitalization rates have been far higher for months, state data shows.
Suffolk County had 479 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and Nassau County had 346.
Increase in hospitalizations likely
Experts say the rising positivity rate and case numbers in New York likely will lead to an increase in hospitalizations, but not as big a surge as last fall and early winter. More than 1,700 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Long Island hospitals on Jan. 18. During the past three weeks, the number has hovered between 200 and 300 a day.
Other states, including some with relatively high vaccination rates such as Colorado and New Mexico, already are struggling with rising hospitalizations, with most patients unvaccinated.
Farber said that even in states with relatively high vaccination rates, "there can be significant outbreaks in one part of a state and not another." New York City's seven-day positivity rate of 1.32% contrasts with 8.08% in the Finger Lakes and 7.7% in western New York.
Citing rising caseloads, New Mexico on Friday joined California and Colorado in offering booster shots to all adults, despite federal recommendations that only those 65 and older and those considered most at risk because of their medical condition or job receive them.
Representatives for Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Health Department did not respond to questions Saturday as to whether Hochul is considering a similar measure in New York.
Unvaccinated at high risk
Sean Clouston, an associate professor of public health at Stony Brook University, said although hospitalizations probably would increase on Long Island, "we should be seeing fewer hospitalizations per case," primarily because of vaccinations and some level of immunity for people previously infected with the coronavirus. People reinfected with the virus, or infected despite being vaccinated, are less likely to get sick enough to end up in the hospital, he said.
Booster shots further reduce the risk of serious illness, Farber said. But "unless you’re living in a cabin away from everyone, if you are unvaccinated, you are at incredibly high risk" of contracting the virus, as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread, he said.
Even so, monoclonal antibody treatments for people at high risk of serious COVID-19 are helping keep people out of the hospital, he said. In addition, if the Food and Drug Administration authorizes promising drugs from Merck and Pfizer that studies show reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, that would further limit additional hospitalizations, he said.
Clouston said this was a risky time of year, with colder weather pushing more people indoors, many people not wearing masks and a lack of social distancing at holiday and other gatherings.
"One problem with this time of year is that you go from one activity to another," he said. "And there’s not a huge amount of time between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, and then Christmas."
Farber said, "A lot of it will depend on what people do over these holidays, if there’s some degree of holding back and being cautious. I’ve urged people to not get together with an unvaccinated individual over these holidays. On a family level, that should be the price you have to pay to go to Thanksgiving or Christmas" gatherings.
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