RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Fewer than 1 in 100 preschool-age children in roughly a fifth of North Carolina’s counties have received even a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

New cases among children 17 and younger are on the rise as the state reaches the critical three-month milestone of vaccine availability for its youngest children, and detailed demographic vaccination data puts into staggering perspective just how underwhelming the turnout has been.

“Those are very disappointing numbers,” said Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., the former director of pediatric infectious diseases at Duke University and now the chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Statewide, 6 percent of children under 5 have gotten their first vaccine shot, a rate that ticked up from 5 percent last week. It tracks with the national rate, which is also about 5 percent.

But the three-month mark is about when the rates for another age group began to level off.

(Credit: NCDHHS)

The vaccines were approved for kids between the ages of 5 and 11 in early November 2021. After three months, 23 percent of children that age had received one.

In the seven months since, that rate has only increased by four percentage points.

And that could be a preview of where the rate for those younger kids is headed.

While a July survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found 43 percent of parents of eligible children under 5 said they would definitely not get them vaccinated, the second-largest chunk — 27 percent — said they would wait and see.

“I don’t know what they’re waiting to see,” McKinney said.

Here’s another way of looking at the under-5 vaccination picture: Preschool class sizes for 2- and 3-year-olds in the state can be no larger than 20 children.

So in a class that size, that rate means an average of just one child is even partially vaccinated.

It’s even more of a concern now because COVID case rates are skyrocketing among school-aged kids.

With class back in session this fall, children 17 and younger — the youngest demographic with case numbers tracked by NCDHHS — accounted for 25 percent of new cases in the state last week, a massive jump after it was 16 percent two weeks earlier.

“That little kid coming home from daycare is like the vector … their trolley system bringing the virus home to everyone else,” McKinney said. “And your likelihood of them being infected is less if they’re vaccinated, and the likelihood of them spreading is less if they’re vaccinated.”

Of course, it’s not the same everywhere across the state — and the three primary counties of the Triangle are doing the best.

Orange County leads the way with 26 percent of children under 5 getting at least one shot, followed by Durham (17 percent) and Wake (13 percent), based on the most recent NCDHHS data through late August.

But at the other end of the spectrum, there are 19 counties where that rate was less than 1 percent. The lowest rate is found in Sampson County, where just 0.3 percent of those kids has gotten a shot.

And that doesn’t include the seven counties where those rates are not disclosed because there aren’t enough children in the population to be counted.

Part of the problem is access: Some pharmacies are reluctant to give shots to children that young, leaving the job of giving those vaccines to pediatricians.

“And it’s always a little bit of a challenge to get kids into offices for vaccines,” said Dr. Zach Willis, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

But is there a ray of light somewhere in there?

Fall and winter tend to be busy times for pediatricians with children catching the ordinary sniffles.

Is it possible that those visits could provide the opportunity for those kids to get vaccinated while they’re there?

“I think a lot of times parents are hesitant to use an ill visit for vaccines,” Willis said, “but it certainly can be done.”

McKinney had another idea.

“If you’re going in with the 8-year-old, and you’ve got the 2-year-old in tow, why not?” he said. “Do it at the same time. The doctor’s office is ready, willing and eager.”


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.