PIERRE, S.D. — With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announcing new approval of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 12 to 15, one South Dakota group is stumping for widespread adoption of vaccination across the state to match or exceed the uptake of adult residents.
Immunize South Dakota, a coalition of public health advocates, is urging vaccinations for young teenagers, saying that it's maybe the most important step toward helping the state return to normal in the near future.
"Getting the COVID vaccine gives you those benefits of coming back to a certain normalcy," said Dr. Fernando Bula-Rudas, a pediatric infectious disease expert with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls. "Now, as the vaccine becomes available for children, as we approve more ages, we know that it's safe and important to reach our children."
South Dakota's adult population initially was among national leaders in vaccine adoption, largely propelled by the state's large health care workforce, fresh memories of the virus's high mortality rate in the state, and elevated vaccine uptake via Indian Health Service.
While the state has slipped in recent months to just above the national median in vaccination rates, as studies show pockets of vaccine-hesitant residents in the state are still holding out on getting the vaccine, the South Dakota Department of Health announced on Wednesday, May 12, that fully half of the state's eligible adult population was fully vaccinated — meaning, it's been two weeks since they'd received both shots of either Moderna or Pfizer, or a single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccination.
"I want to take this opportunity to thank all South Dakotans who have chosen to get their COVID-19 vaccine, protecting themselves, their family, and their community," Kim Malsam-Rysdon, DOH Secretary, said in a news release earlier this week.
While children are often perceived to be more resilient toward COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, health experts caution the virus — like other illnesses parents protect children from — can still imperil the young.
"Some people have misinterpreted this message of children tending to get mild cases, and that's not completely accurate," Bula-Rudas said. He added that comparisons between COVID-19 and strains of the flu in children suggest children get sicker from COVID-19, increasing hospitalizations and inflammatory complications in kids.
"It's important that our children, our youth, get this vaccine," Bula-Rudas said.
Misinformation has already dogged some school sites across the state. Wednesday, students in Yankton, S.D., saw fliers on cars that perpetuated false information about vaccine side effects. The school's superintendent did not return a request for comment from Forum News Service.
Some states have taken creative approaches to vaccination uptake — from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announcing a $1 million lottery for vaccinated adults to Gov. Janet T. Mills in Maine giving away free fishing licenses — South Dakota's public health officials are taking an encouragement approach. Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, has said she is opposed to imposing a so-called vaccine passport in state facilities, though she has encouraged eligible South Dakotans to get the vaccine.
One primary driver for vaccine uptake amongst adolescents, say doctors, will be that schools will look normal come next fall.
On Tuesday, the South Dakota Board of Regents Executive Director Brian Maher told the group next year would look a lot more like 2019, than 2020.
"Returning to normal is not solely a matter of wearing a mask or not wearing a mask," said Maher. "And we are getting closer and closer to returning to normal."