COVID-19 surges in unvaccinated communities are sending more kids to the hospital

At least 452 children in the United States have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, a tiny fraction of the nearly 650,000 deaths nationwide. Many have attempted to minimize the impact of the pandemic on children by downplaying its severity.

However, two new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies released Friday show that children are not getting a pass. And especially since the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and the Delta variant, kids’ prospects rest largely on the decisions made by the adults who surround them.

When adults and eligible adolescents get vaccinated in large numbers, younger children are at greatly reduced risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19, the new reports show. Conversely, when few are willing to get the jab, the pediatric wings of hospitals will fill — as they did in COVID-19 hot spots across the country in mid-August.

A study that examined hospitalization rates in 99 counties across 14 U.S. states found that the rate at which children were being hospitalized for COVID-19 had jumped fivefold in the span of about seven weeks this summer. For the youngest patients — those under 4 — hospitalization rates jumped by a factor of 10.

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A second report showed that pediatric hospital admissions were higher in states with low vaccine coverage. Hospital admissions and visits were also lower in states with high vaccination rates among eligible residents.

Pediatric hospitalization rates were four times higher in states such as Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and Georgia, which have some of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, than they were in states such as Vermont, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Connecticut, where vaccination rates are among the highest.

Both were published in the CDC’s Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report.

Released as children are returning to schools, the new research underscores that the surges of COVID-19 illness that have accompanied the Delta variant’s ascendancy have sent growing numbers of children to the hospital as well.

Once admitted, roughly 1 in 4 pediatric COVID-19 patients will go on to be treated in an intensive care unit.

With vaccines authorized for emergency use in adolescents ages 12 and up, not all kids have had to rely on the adults around them for protection.

During a six-week stretch of June and July, fully vaccinated adolescents older than 12 were 10 times less likely to be admitted to a hospital with COVID-19 than were their unvaccinated peers.

In a period when the Delta variant predominated, the CDC concluded, “vaccines were highly effective at preventing serious COVID-19 illness in this age group.”

But younger kids remained at the mercy of decisions made by grown-ups in their communities.

“These data show that community-level vaccination coverage protects children,” stated Dr. Rochelle Walensky director at the CDC. “As the number of COVID-19 cases increases in the community, the number of children presenting to the emergency room and being admitted to the hospital will also increase.”

The authors of the new reports emphasized that for those too young to be immunized themselves, making sure that teachers are vaccinated and implementing other measures to prevent transmission of the virus will be “critical.” That includes universal mask-wearing in schools, vaccination of kids 12 and older, and the use of face coverings among toddlers older than 2 in day-care centers. One positive conclusion emerged from Friday’s two reports: While the Delta variant has caused new outbreaks of illness, death, and infections in children, it appears to not be making them sicker than other coronavirus variants.

In the three-month period from mid-June, when the Delta variant was still not the predominant strain in the United States, the proportion of children admitted to hospital who needed intensive care was about the same as in the six weeks that followed (when Delta was the dominant strain).

” There was no increase in disease severity among children,” Walensky stated. “Instead, more children have COVID-19, because there is more disease in the community.”

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