Children with COVID-19 are more likely to develop severe illness and require intensive care than previously realized, data from a single-center study suggest.
Jerry Y. Chao, MD, of the department of anesthesiology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, and colleagues reported their findings in an article published online May 11 in the Journal of Pediatrics.
“Thankfully most children with COVID-19 fare well, and some do not have any symptoms at all, but this research is a sobering reminder that children are not immune to this virus and some do require a higher level of care,” senior author Shivanand S. Medar, MD, FAAP, attending physician, Cardiac Intensive Care, Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, and assistant professor of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a Montefiore Medical Center news release.
The study included 67 patients aged 1 month to 21 years (median, 13.1 years) who were treated for COVID-19 at a tertiary care children’s hospital between March 15 and April 13. Of those, 21 (31.3%) were treated as outpatients.
“As the number of patients screened for COVID-19 was restricted during the first weeks of the outbreak because of limited testing availability, the number of mildly symptomatic patients is not known, and therefore these 21 patients are not included in the analysis,” the authors wrote.
Of the 46 hospitalized patients, 33 (72%) were admitted to a general pediatric medical ward, and 13 (28%) were admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).
Almost one-third (14 children; 30.4%) of the admitted patients were obese, and almost one-quarter (11 children; 24.4%) had asthma, but neither factor was associated with an increased risk for PICU admission.
“We know that in adults, obesity is a risk factor for more severe disease, however, surprisingly, our study found that children admitted to the intensive care unit did not have a higher prevalence of obesity than those on the general unit,” Dr. Chao said in the news release.
Three of the PICU patients (25%) had preexisting seizure disorders, as did one (3%) patient on the general medical unit. “There was no significant difference in the usage of ibuprofen prior to hospitalization among patients admitted to medical unit compared with those admitted to the PICU,” the authors wrote.
Platelet counts were lower in patients admitted to the PICU compared with those on the general medical unit; however, C-reactive protein, procalcitonin, and pro–brain natriuretic peptide levels were all elevated in patients admitted to the PICU compared with those admitted to the general medical unit.
Patients admitted to the PICU were more likely to need high-flow nasal cannula. Ten (77%) patients in the PICU developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), and six (46.2%) of them needed “invasive mechanical ventilation for a median of 9 days.”
The only clinical symptom significantly linked to PICU admission was shortness of breath (92.3% vs 30.3%; P < .001).
Eight (61.5%) of the 13 patients treated in the PICU were discharged to home; four (30.7%) were still hospitalized and receiving ventilatory support on day 14. One patient had metastatic cancer and died as a result of the cancer after life-sustaining therapy was withdrawn.
Those admitted to the PICU were more likely to receive treatment with remdesivir via compassionate use compared with those treated in the general medical unit. Seven (53.8%) patients in the PICU developed severe sepsis and septic shock syndromes.
The average hospital stay was 4 days longer for the children admitted to the PICU than for the children admitted to the general medical unit.
Cough (63%) and fever (60.9%) were the most frequently reported symptoms at admission. The median duration of symptoms before admission was 3 days. None of the children had traveled to an area affected by COVID-19 before becoming ill, and only 20 (43.5%) children were confirmed to have had contact with someone with COVID-19. “The lack of a known sick contact reported in our study may have implications for how healthcare providers identify and screen for potential cases,” the authors explained.
Although children are believed to experience milder SARS-CoV-2 illness, these results and those of an earlier study suggest that some pediatric patients develop illness severe enough to require PICU admission. “This subset had significantly higher markers of inflammation (CRP, pro-BNP, procalcitonin) compared with patients in the medical unit. Inflammation likely contributed to the high rate of ARDS we observed, although serum levels of IL-6 and other cytokines linked to ARDS were not determined,” the authors wrote.
A retrospective cohort study found that of 177 children and young adults treated in a single center, patients younger than 1 year and older than 15 years were more likely to become critically ill with COVID-19 (J Pediatr. 2020 May. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.007).
Each of the two age groups accounted for 32% of the hospitalized patients.
The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Medscape.com.