NEW BEDFORD — Children and teens in the city now account for a higher portion of COVID-19 cases than at any other time during the pandemic, city and state data show. In New Bedford, data shared by the city Health Department show that a quarter of COVID-19 cases since September occurred in children ages 14 and younger. 

There were 92 new cases among students and staff at New Bedford Public Schools last week, the highest number in a single week since the beginning of the pandemic. Weekly cases among students and staff this fall have repeatedly exceeded last year’s record of 65 cases in December 2020. In total, there have been more than 600 cases in the district since September.

The age groups with the highest number of new cases are also those with the lowest vaccination rates. Among people 65 and older, 79.3% are fully vaccinated, while for those aged 12 to 19, the vaccination rate is 40.6%. Overall, New Bedford still has one of the lowest rates of fully vaccinated residents in Massachusetts at 51.3%. Its rate for pediatric vaccinations ranks in the bottom 6% of Massachusetts communities.

Children with COVID-19 are less likely than adults to develop severe symptoms or require hospitalization. But the risk is higher for unvaccinated children and children with chronic conditions like asthma. 

During flu season, children are more likely to develop simultaneous infections of COVID-19 and influenza or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), said Noelle Kohles, chief nursing and clinical operations officer at Greater New Bedford Community Health Center.

“Viruses don’t pick and choose which one you get,” Kohles said. “Children are coming in with more than one virus attacking them at the same time, and that can create a dangerous situation.”

She said nine children with COVID-19 have come into the community health center for treatment in the last 14 days, most referred by one of the public schools where they received a positive test. Primary care doctors at GNBCHC triage the patients and typically send them to St. Luke’s if they need to be hospitalized.

COVID-19 cases 2020-2021

New Bedford public schools

Massachusetts public schools

From September to October, there was a three-fold rise in the percentage of patients younger than 18 who were admitted at Southcoast Health’s three hospitals — St. Luke’s in New Bedford, Charlton Memorial in Fall River and Tobey Hospital in Wareham.

“Cases are high because they (children) are relatively unvaccinated compared to adults, and because they are gathering in large numbers again as in schools,” said Dr. Brian Sard, chair of pediatrics at Southcoast Health.

“There are unique manifestations in children such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which causes inflammation of many of the organs of the body, especially the heart. What used to be routine fever evaluations now has to factor in COVID infections or its long-term consequences. Children with underlying medical conditions are especially vulnerable to infection and more likely to be hospitalized.”

“There are less severe respiratory cases in children requiring hospitalization and causing death,” Sard said.

Three weeks into the rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech’s pediatric vaccine, New Bedford lags behind the rest of the state in administering first doses to eligible children ages 5-11. Of 8,681 eligible children in the city, the latest data show 371, or 4.3% have received their first dose. In Massachusetts as a whole, 16.9% of eligible children have received their first dose. 

The vaccine equity gap for children in Massachusetts is dramatic. Thirteen towns have administered first doses to more than 50% of eligible children while the bottom 111 towns and cities have administered doses to fewer than 10% of children. 

The New Bedford Health Department is working with the schools to host vaccine clinics in December at Jacobs, Gomes and Hayden-McFadden elementary schools at the request of parents with children in the district. The school district and health department have sent information about the importance of vaccines to families.

“We are working with the NB Health Department to coordinate vaccination clinics Monday-Friday and at multiple times on the weekends including mornings,” said New Bedford Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Anderson in an email from Arthur Motta, school spokesman.

Lincoln School and Pulaski School are also planning to host vaccine clinics in the coming weeks. And the schools’ health services staff are working on providing additional vaccine clinics for students with disabilities.

Massachusetts public schools started using rapid antigen testing this fall to reduce the amount of class time that students could miss due to possible COVID-19 exposure. 

Anderson said the city’s public schools have administered 4,750 tests since the program started this year, with 91 positive results. 

“Be mindful, each test represents a possible day out of school,” Anderson said. “What it means is that because 4,659 tests were negative, we were able to keep staff and students in school on those days. So, it can be viewed as we saved 4,659 days of school.”

Email Abigail Nehring at anehring@newbedfordlight.org.

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