Over the course of the pandemic, COVID-19 has been a less serious illness for children than it has been for adults, and that continues to be true. But with the arrival of Delta, the risk for kids is rising, and that’s creating a perilous situation for hospitals across the United States that treat them.
Roughly 1,800 kids were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States last week, a 500% increase in the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations for children since early July, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Emerging data from a large study in Canada suggest that children who test positive for COVID-19 during the Delta wave may be more than twice as likely to be hospitalized as they were when previous variants were dominating transmission. The new data support what many pediatric infectious disease experts say they’ve been seeing: Younger kids with more serious symptoms.
That may sound concerning, but keep in mind that the overall risk of hospitalization for kids who have COVID-19 is still very low – about one child for every hundred who test positive for the virus will end up needing hospital care for their symptoms, according to current statistics maintained by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
‘This is different’
At Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, they saw Delta coming.
Since last year, every kid that comes to the emergency department at the hospital gets a screening test for COVID-19.
In past waves, doctors usually found kids who were infected by accident – they tested positive after coming in for some other problem, a broken leg or appendicitis, said Nick Hysmith, MD, medical director of infection prevention at the hospital. But within the last few weeks, kids with fevers, sore throats, coughs, and runny noses started testing positive for COVID-19.
“We have seen our positive numbers go from, you know, close to about 8%-10% jump up to 20%, and then in recent weeks, we can get as high as 26% or 30%,” Dr. Hysmith said. “Then we started seeing kids sick enough to be admitted.”
“Over the last week, we’ve really seen an increase,” he said. As of August 16, the hospital had 24 children with COVID-19 admitted. Seven of the children were in the PICU, and two were on ventilators.
Arkansas Children’s Hospital had 23 young COVID-19 patients, 10 in intensive care, and five on ventilators, as of Friday, according to the Washington Post. At Children’s of Mississippi, the only hospital for kids in that state, 22 youth were hospitalized as of Monday, with three in intensive care as of August 16, according to the hospital. The nonprofit relief organization Samaritan’s Purse is setting up a second field hospital in the basement of Children’s to expand the hospital’s capacity.
“This is different,” Dr. Hysmith said. “What we’re seeing now is previously healthy kids coming in with symptomatic infection.”
This increased virulence is happening at a bad time. Schools around the United States are reopening for in-person classes, some for the first time in more than a year. Eight states have blocked districts from requiring masks, while many more have made them optional.
Children under 12 still have no access to a vaccine, so they are facing increased exposure to a germ that’s become more dangerous with little protection, especially in schools that have eschewed masks.