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Hospitalizations skyrocket in kids too young for COVID shots

January 8, 2022 9:15 am
Registered nurse Morgan Flynn works inside a patient's room in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, N.H. [Source: AP]

Hospitalizations of U.S. children under 5 with COVID-19 soared in recent weeks to their highest level since the pandemic began.

This is according to government data released Friday on the only age group not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The worrisome trend in children too young to be vaccinated underscores the need for older kids and adults to get their shots to help protect those around them, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Since mid-December, with the highly contagious omicron variant spreading furiously around the country, the hospitalization rate in these youngest kids has surged to more than 4 in 100,000 children, up from 2.5 per 100,000.

The rate among children ages 5 to 17 is about 1 per 100,000, according to the CDC data, which is drawn from over 250 hospitals in 14 states.

Overall, “pediatric hospitalizations are at their highest rate compared to any prior point in the pandemic,” Walensky said.

The overall hospitalization rate among children and teens under 18 is still lower than that of any other age group. And they account for less than 5% of average new daily hospital admissions, according to the CDC.

As of Tuesday, the average number of under-18 patients admitted to the hospital per day with COVID-19 was 766, double the figure reported just two weeks ago.

The trend among the very youngest kids is being driven by high hospitalization rates in five states: Georgia, Connecticut, Tennessee, California and Oregon, with the steepest increases in Georgia, the CDC said.

At a briefing, Walensky said the numbers include children hospitalized because of COVID-19 and those admitted for other reasons but found to be infected.

The CDC also said the surge could be partially attributable to how COVID-19 hospitalizations in this age group are defined: a positive virus test within 14 days of hospitalization for any reason.

The severity of illness among children during the omicron wave seems lower than it was with the delta variant, said Seattle Children’s Hospital critical care chief Dr. John McGuire.

“Most of the COVID+ kids in the hospital are actually not here for COVID-19 disease,” McGuire said in an email. “They are here for other issues but happen to have tested positive.”

The nation’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said earlier this week that omicron appears to cause less-severe disease across the board, but that the sheer number of infections because of its extreme contagiousness will mean that many more children will get infected, and a certain share of them will wind up in the hospital.

Fauci also said many children hospitalized with COVID-19 have other health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from the virus. That includes obesity, diabetes and lung disease.

Fauci and Walensky have emphasized that one of the best ways to protect the youngest children is to vaccinate everyone else.

She noted that just over 50% of children ages 12 to 18, and only 16% of those 5 to 11, are fully vaccinated.

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