As mask mandates are eased, Grand Forks health officials stress importance of COVID-19 vaccination for children ages 5-11

Some parents may feel more urgency in response to the Grand Forks School Board’s decision to end the mask mandate in school buildings effective next month.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “As of December 2, more than seven million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Childhood COVID cases are extremely high, with more than 133,000 child cases added in the past week. For the 17th week in a row, there are more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 in children. Since the first week of September, there have been almost two million additional children’s cases.”

Haley Bruhn, immunization program manager at Grand Forks Public Health, said this week that some parents have anticipated the opportunity to have their young children vaccinated.

“Like any new recommendation that comes along, the people who’ve been eagerly awaiting it are the first to arrive,” Bruhn said. “And so the feedback from parents was that they were very excited that their kids could get vaccinated.”

Parents who have already had their older children vaccinated “felt like they were waiting for this latter age group to be approved,” Bruhn said, noting that the vaccine has been available through Grand Forks Public Health since Nov. 4.

The Grand Forks school district is lifting its mask mandate next month, “so there are a lot of parents who want to protect their children…,” she said.

The district has informed parents that Monday, December 13, is the last day students aged 5-11 can begin their vaccination course and be considered fully immunized by January 17, said Tracy Jentz, communications and community engagement coordinator. That is the date on which the school board’s decision to replace the mask mandate with a mask recommendation will take effect.

In East Grand Forks public schools, masks are recommended for all classes, said high school principal Brian Loer. Earlier this fall, a mask mandate was introduced for about a month for classes K-6, but that was replaced by a mask recommendation.

The Grand Forks school system does not maintain vaccination clinics in schools, but it does share immunization information with families, Jentz said.

School district officials have encouraged parents to obtain more information about the vaccine, as well as when and where vaccinations are available, by going online at or by speaking with their healthcare provider.

Two-dose vaccine

The two doses of the free Pfizer vaccine for children are given three weeks apart, and according to public health officials, patients are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second dose.

Fully vaccinated students without symptoms can avoid disruptions to their school and activity schedules because they don’t have to go into quarantine after contacting someone who had COVID-19, public health officials say. They are also at a reduced risk of diseases that can result from exposure to COVID-19.

As of Monday, December 6, in Grand Forks County, 512 children, ages 5-11, have been fully vaccinated, 677 partially vaccinated and 4,629 unvaccinated out of an estimated age range of 5,818, according to Michael Dulitz, COVID-19 data and analysis leader for GFPH .

‘A lot of calling’

“We got a lot of calls before we could schedule them,” said Casey Nextad, nurse manager for Sanford clinics in East Grand Forks and Grand Forks.

“We have put a number of people on the waiting list. But it filled up pretty quickly with the slots we had available for patients. We made provision to add additional doses if there was more need from day to day,” said Aanad.

“(Parents) were happy to be able to schedule visits with minimal wait times, and we had great access for the pediatric patients who wanted to schedule and receive the vaccine.”

The first pediatric COVID vaccines for children ages 5-11 were given Nov. 4 at the East Grand Forks clinic in Sanford, Nextad said. Since then, 182 doses have been administered.

The pediatric vaccine for this age group is available at Sanford clinics in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, Minn., and Hillsboro, ND, she said. It is not available at Sanford Grand Forks Clinic.

Local Sanford and public health clinics have sufficient vaccine supply to meet demand, both Zevenad and Bruhn said. (An interview with an Altru Health System professional was requested, but was not made available before the deadline.)

At the Sanford East Grand Forks Clinic, pediatric vaccination appointments for COVID-19 are available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The staff will “assess week by week whether there is a greater need for after-hours or weekends,” said Nextad. “We’ve also done some blitzes, if needed. But for now, just doing them during clinic hours has worked well.”

“However, we made adjustments to 4:30 or 5 a.m. with the school release,” she said. “If necessary, we can give them later in the day.”

Side effects are similar to other side effects of vaccines, Zevenad said. “Soreness, pain or swelling at the injection site, fever, fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, chills and/or headache.”

Research is still underway on the effectiveness of the pediatric Pfizer vaccine against the delta and omicron variants, she said, “but it is still recommended that both children and adults continue to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists have conducted clinical trials on about 3,000 children, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine meets safety and efficacy standards for authorization in children in the United States. ages 5 to 11. According to the CDC, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines is still under scrutiny.

Case rates high

Public health officials are urging everyone ages 5 and older to get a COVID-19 vaccination as the number of cases in the province remains high, they announced in a press release issued Tuesday, Dec. 7.

“Vaccination is the best available means of combating the diseases and serious illnesses of COVID-19,” said Shawn McBride, a public health epidemiologist at Grand Forks Public Health. “Vaccination reduces the risk of infection, hospitalization and death. It also reduces the risk of passing the infection on to others. … It’s free, safe and effective.”

At this point, severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19 appears to be “unusual” in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics states. “However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on the long-term effects of the pandemic on children, including ways in which the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects.”

if you go

Grand Forks public health officials are encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible. A complimentary Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, for children ages 5-11, will be available Saturday, December 11 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Grand Cities Mall, in the former Christian Bookshelf location adjacent to Ace Hardware, 1826 S. Washington . Appointments are available by going online to or calling (701) 787-8100.

To find other vaccination sites in North Dakota, visit or contact your primary care provider or local pharmacy.

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