New data shows COVID-19 cases remain extremely rare among New Jerseyans who have been vaccinated against the virus, but health officials here are increasingly concerned about children’s vulnerability as the more infectious delta strain continues to spread.

Dr. Ed Lifshitz, director of New Jersey’s communicable disease service, reported Monday that fewer than 3,500 — or less than 0.08% — of the more than 4.4 million people vaccinated by June 28 have later tested positive for the virus, so-called breakthrough cases. The shots are even more effective against severe sickness and mortality, he said, noting that just 84 immunized individuals have been hospitalized and 31 died.

“These numbers speak for themselves,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at his pandemic media briefing Monday, “and they speak volumes as to why everyone ages 12 and up who is eligible should go and get vaccinated.”

One of the three vaccines currently approved by U.S. regulators can be used in children age 12 and up. Trials for possible use in younger children continue.

More than 5 million New Jerseyans have been inoculated against the coronavirus so far, but vaccination rates differ by age, ethnicity and geography, among other factors. While 70% of residents over age 30 have had at least one shot, according to state health officials, the rate is 61% among those 18 – 29 and just 42% for those age 12 to 17 years.

Virus continues to spread

While the pandemic is not nearly as severe at it has been at other points since March 2020, the coronavirus continues to spread in New Jersey and in all other states, primarily among unvaccinated individuals. New daily diagnoses of COVID-19 have topped those recorded last year on several days over the past month, and hospitalizations have risen 20% in two weeks, according to the state Department of Health.

On Monday, the state reported 434 new cases, 338 hospitalizations and a transmission rate of 1.37 — a level not seen since mid-November — which indicates the virus is actively spreading.

“I cannot repeat it enough. We do not have a pandemic among the vaccinated,” Murphy said Monday. “We only have a pandemic among the unvaccinated.”

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday she is especially concerned about the impact of the ongoing spread — driven by the more transmissible delta variant — on children. Summer camps and back-to-school activities are a particular concern, as these children will be mixing with kids from other age groups, she said.

“It is expected that this variant will cause increasing cases among children who cannot be vaccinated, including severe cases,” Persichilli said. Seven children in Mississippi are now hospitalized in critical care from the virus, she said, including two of them on ventilators.

Urging more vaccination among younger residents

“To build greater protection for our state, we need more of these individuals in these younger groups to get vaccinated,” Persichilli said.

Cases of COVID-19 among children have generally increased on pace with the larger population, Persichilli noted, but the case rates among some age groups is up significantly when compared to mid-June. Diagnoses among kids ages 11 to 13 jumped 36% from June 12 to July 12, the DOH found, 15% among those 5 to 10 years old, and 29% among those age 4 and under.

Similar increases nationwide have triggered discussions about reinstating infection-control measures like social distancing and masking requirements. On Monday the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all youngsters over age 2 wear masks to school this fall, regardless of vaccination status. Last week Los Angeles County reactivated its universal public-masking requirement.

But New Jersey officials said these restrictions are not currently necessary here and instead urged all residents to get immunized. The numbers of patients in critical care units has remained fairly steady, Persichilli said.

Only 38% of the township’s adults are fully vaccinated

“We are particularly watching children,” she added, and if cases start to climb significantly the state will ramp up its vaccination outreach.

“We are not there yet,” Murphy said when asked for his thoughts on a return to mask mandates. “We continue to be comfortable with where we are, but we watch this like a hawk and our strong, strong, strong preference is not to go back” to widespread restrictions, he continued.

“We are among the most vaccinated state in the country and that’s a huge positive, but we need more folks to get vaccinated,” Murphy added.

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