Kids’ Covid Hospitalizations Hit Record in U.S. Omicron Surge
(Bloomberg) -- Pediatric Covid-19 hospitalizations have risen to record levels as omicron races across the U.S., amplifying the urgency to get boosters and vaccines cleared for children.
While the variant so far doesn’t appear more severe than other versions in youngsters, the growing number of cases means more children are susceptible to serious illness. New hospital admissions of kids with Covid-19 have increased 66% to 378 a day on average for the week ending Tuesday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The last peak occurred in early September at a daily count of 342.
The Northeast and parts of the Midwest are seeing higher-than-ever numbers, though a doubling of hospitalizations in some Southern states still haven’t yet hit records reached over the summer. Just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol, doctors at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S., were caring for about 45 kids with Covid-19 on Thursday, up from about 30 Monday. During the September wave fueled by the delta variant, the peak was 23.
“The majority of our hospitalized kids are in the hospital because they are sick with Covid symptoms,” said Roberta DeBiasi, the hospital’s infectious disease chief. It’s rare for children to arrive for another reason and be incidentally diagnosed with Covid, she said.
“We occasionally have someone who, for instance, was here for surgery or trauma and was noted to be positive for Covid, but that is not very common,” said DeBiasi.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky downplayed the role of Covid in kids’ hospital admissions.
“Many children are hospitalized with Covid as opposed to because of Covid,” she said on the call. She was echoed by Karen Acker, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and hospital epidemiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital.
“While we also have some children admitted for Covid-19 infection itself, many are admitted for other indications but happen to have a positive test for Covid-19,” Acker said.
The surge in childhood admissions is just the latest to stretch hospitals beyond capacity, said Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who specializes in preparedness. It only adds to the impact of staff falling ill or leaving the field because of pandemic fatigue.
Omicron is also sending older Americans to hospitals, but the incline hasn’t been as steep as among children. Like kids, people 40 to 49 years old also saw hospitalizations spike in September. But the daily number of hospitalizations for that age group now is 1,032, a 27% increase over the last week but still 37% lower than early September, according to CDC data.
A major difference between the age groups is immunization that can only be gained via shots. CDC data shows 15% of kids ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated and 53% of teens ages 12 to 17. By comparison, 71% of people 40 to 49 years old are fully vaccinated.
“Kids are less vaccinated than others,” Toner said. “They are just not as protected as adults are.”
The majority of hospitalized kids are unvaccinated, according to the CDC. Unvaccinated adolescents 12 to 17 years old were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than youth of the same age who were fully vaccinated.
Parents of chidren under 5 are facing a longer wait for shots since Pfizer Inc. said testing showed the dose it was evaluating for that age group didn’t work in those older than 2. Children 5 and older have access to Pfizer’s vaccine but still can’t get booster doses needed to fend off omicron.
People ages 18 to 29, who tend to be getting vaccinated at lower rates than older adults, are also experiencing large increases in hospitalization.
“We are going to feel this surge for weeks to come,” said Kristin Moffitt, an infectious disease physician at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Whether omicron is more or less severe for children than older people is still under evaluation, Moffitt said, and the increasing number of pediatric hospitalizations is likely a matter of the sheer rise in cases.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is shattering case records daily. The nation tallied more than 489,000 new cases Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. The previous peak number of cases in a day was more than 294,000 in January 2021.
As more people are vaccinated and treatment has improved, death rates are going down and continue to be very low in children. Out of more than 820,000 total deaths from Covid-19, less than 800 have been children. Still, children, like adults, face the risk of long-term illness from Covid including a long-term inflammation that can damage the heart, lungs and brain.
“The end message is, take this seriously,” said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “This virus is still good at finding the most vulnerable in this community.”
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