A child gets the Covid vaccine. (Photo: Unicef Ethiopia via Flickr)

The city is making a concerted push to overcome parental reluctance and get children under 5 vaccinated against Covid-19, health officials said Monday. After federal regulators finally approved shots for children from 6 months to 5 years old on June 17, “what we feel like we’re dealing with at this point is still a level of vaccine hesitancy that parents are experiencing, and the resistance to take their children to be vaccinated,” chief public health officer Derrick Neal told city councillors.

Neal said the department is focusing on “health promotion, and making sure that we educate individuals, because that’s the greatest challenge that we’re having.”

The campaign includes forums “giving parents an opportunity to ask questions,” Cambridge Public Health Department medical director Lisa Dobberteen said. The health department is also considering adding the youngest age group to its weekly Wednesday vaccination clinic at the Windsor Street health center in The Port neighborhood, a decision that could come “later in July,” she said.

“Certainly by the time it’s time for flu clinics to roll around, those will be full-scale flu and Covid vaccination clinics for all ages,” Dobberteen said. Flu clinics usually begin in the fall.

Neal and Dobberteen spoke as Covid case numbers in Cambridge have fallen since the unprecedented omicron variant surge in January but remain higher than at most other times in the pandemic. City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, giving his final Covid-19 report to the council before retiring July 5, said case numbers are on “a sustained downward trend;” Neal said they’re “plateauing.”

Young children may be added to The Port neighborhood’s Windsor Street health center Wednesday vaccination clinics. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“But we can’t forget the fact that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. And although the numbers are low, we’ve seen this movie before and we know that they can readily go back up,” Neal said.

The numbers themselves have become less reliable as more people test themselves at home without reporting the results to health authorities, officials in Cambridge and elsewhere have pointed out.

Exceptions in infections

There have been some troubling exceptions to the general decline in new infections.

In May, cases in students and staff in Cambridge public schools climbed higher than the schools’ total for January when omicron was raging, according to data reported on the Cambridge Public Schools Covid-19 dashboard. There were 594 cases in May, and 512 in January.

School cases spiked for a combination of reasons: prevalence of the highly contagious omicron subvariant B.2.12; students and staff returning from travels during April vacation;  and the policy change making masks optional in school, Cambridge Public Health Department spokesperson Dawn Baxter said June 17. “We’re encouraged to see the steady downward trend in cases in CPS since the peak in mid-May, which is mirroring that in the broader community,” Baxter said.

Covid among older residents

On the other end of the age spectrum, cases have been rising in residents over 65 living in the community, though the rate per 100,000 population remains lower than for any other age group except young adults from 18 to 23 years old. Older people face more risks of severe disease from the virus. Those figures were in a report presented to the Cambridge Health Alliance public health subcommittee on June 14. CHA operates the city’s public health department.

Besides infections in older people living in the community, new cases inched up in residents and staff of Cambridge nursing homes and assisted-living centers during June, according to filings with the state Department of Public Health and with the federal government.

Sancta Maria Nursing Facility had two infections among residents for the week ending June 5 and another two the next week, figures from a federal report said. There were six employees who tested positive the week ending June 5. More recent figures from the state health department showed Sancta Maria with one to four residents infected on June 15 and the same number on June 16. The report for June 15 said seven workers tested positive.

Sancta Maria Nursing Facility in the Cambridge Highlands. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The federal and state reports may be counting the same cases; it’s impossible to tell because details about the timing of the reports haven’t been disclosed. And the state doesn’t report exact numbers under five, for privacy reasons.

Cambridge Homes, an assisted-living facility, reported one to four residents with Covid on June 2, June 22 and Thursday. During most of the pandemic, no Cambridge Homes residents tested positive. There are no federal reports for Cambridge Homes because assisted-living facilities aren’t required to disclose case numbers to federal agencies.

The city reports cases in long-term care residents daily without identifying the facilities. From June 2 until Monday, the number of infections in long-term care residents rose to 384 from 377, or seven new cases in 25 days. It took from April 19 to June 2  – 44 days – for the previous increase of seven cases.

Vaccinations among home staff

The state Department of Public Health is dropping masking requirements for nursing home residents effective July 1, although staff members must still wear masks. A department spokesperson said residents will still be asked to wear a face covering if they are in isolation or quarantine because of a positive test or exposure to the virus.

The spokesperson also said 100 percent of nursing home staff and 95 percent of residents are fully vaccinated; 98 percent of eligible residents and 93 percent of staff have received a booster shot. The newest omicron subvariants can elude vaccines and boosters when it comes to infection, but the vaccinations continue to protect against severe disease and death, according to studies.

Cambridge nursing homes have varying vaccination and boosting rates for residents and staff; Sancta Maria and Cambridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center have 100 percent staff vaccinated and boosted, according to the most recent federal report, for the week ending June 12. Cambridge Rehabilitation, meanwhile, reported one to four staff cases on June 27.

More than 90 percent of residents in Cambridge nursing homes are fully vaccinated and boosted, according to the federal report, but Cambridge Rehabilitation and Neville Center at Fresh Pond fall below the statewide figures cited by the state health department spokesperson.