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Children likely the ‘leading edge’ in spread of COVID-19 variants


Fall surge all over again

“It’s starting to feel an awful lot like déjà vu, where the hospitalization numbers, the positivity rate, all of the metrics that we track are trending up significantly, and it’s feeling like the fall surge,” said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Hospital Association. “It’s feeling in many ways like the initial surge a year ago.”

Mr. Peters said that in January and February, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan were less than 1,000 a day. Recently, he said, there were 2,558 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan.

About half of adults aged 65 and older have been fully vaccinated in Michigan. That’s led to a dramatic drop in cases and hospitalizations among seniors, who are at highest risk of death. At the same time, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and health officials with the Biden administration have encouraged schools to reopen for in-person learning, and extracurricular activities have largely resumed.

The same circumstances – students in classrooms, combined with the arrival of the variants – resulted in COVID-19 cases caused by the B.1.1.7 variant increasing among younger age groups in the United Kingdom.

When schools were locked down again, however, cases caused by variant and wild type viruses both dropped in children, suggesting that there wasn’t anything that made B.1.1.7 extra risky for children, but that the strain is more contagious for everyone. Sports, extracurricular activities, and classrooms offered the virus plenty of opportunities to spread.

In Michigan, Dr. Bagdasarian said the outbreaks in children started with winter sports.

“Not necessarily transmission on the field, but we’re really talking about social gatherings that were happening in and around sports,” like the pizza party to celebrate a team win, she said, “and I think those social gatherings were a big driver.”

“Outbreaks are trickling over into teams and trickling over into schools, which is exactly what we want to avoid,” she added.

Thus far, Michigan has been reserving vaccine doses for older adults but will open eligibility to anyone age 16 and older starting on April 6.

Until younger age groups can be vaccinated, Mr. Peters said people need to continue to be careful.

“We see people letting their guard down and it’s to be expected,” Mr. Peters said. “People have COVID fatigue, and they are eager to get together with their friends. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Children ‘heavily impacted’

In Nebraska, Alice Sato, MD, PhD, hospital epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, said they saw an increase in MIS-C cases after the winter surges, and she’s watching the data carefully as COVID-19 cases tick up in other midwestern states.

Dr. Sato got so tired of hearing people compare COVID-19 to the flu that she pulled some numbers on pediatric deaths.

While COVID-19 fatality rates in children are much lower than they are for adults, at least 279 children have died across the United States since the start of the pandemic. The highest number of confirmed pediatric deaths recorded during any of the previous 10 flu seasons was 188, according to the CDC.

“So while children are relatively spared, they’re still heavily impacted,” said Dr. Sato.

She was thrilled to hear the recent news that the Pfizer vaccine works well in children aged 12-15, but because Pfizer’s cold-chain requirements make it one the trickiest to store, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t given the go-ahead yet. She said it will be months before she has any to offer to teens in her state.

In the meantime, genetic testing has shown that the variants are already circulating there.

“We really want parents and family members who are eligible to be vaccinated because that is a great way to protect children that I cannot vaccinate yet,” Dr. Sato said. “The best way for me to protect children is to prevent the adults around them from being infected.”

A version of this article first appeared on


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