Hospitalizations for COVID-19 among American children under 5 have climbed in recent weeks to their highest level since the start of the pandemic, according to government data released Friday on the only age group not yet eligible for the vaccination.
The disturbing trend underscores the need for older children and adults to get their COVID-19 vaccines to help protect those around them, said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the highly contagious variant of Omicron spreading across the country, the hospitalization rate of these youngest children has risen to more than 4 per 100,000 children, from 2.5 per 100,000 in mid-December.
The rate among children aged 5 to 17 is around 1 in 100,000, according to CDC data, which comes from more than 250 hospitals in 14 states.
Overall, “Pediatric hospitalizations are at their highest rate compared to any other time in the pandemic,” Walensky said.
She noted that just over 50% of children aged 12 to 18, and only 16% of those aged 5 to 11, are fully immunized.
The overall rate of hospitalization among children and adolescents is consistently lower than that of any other age group. And they represent less than 5% of average daily new hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
Yet on Tuesday the average number of patients under 18 admitted to hospital per day with COVID-19 was 766 – double the figure reported just two weeks ago.
The trend among very young children is due to high hospitalization rates in five states: Georgia, Connecticut, Tennessee, California and Oregon, with the largest increases in Georgia, according to the CDC.
During a briefing, Walensky said the figures included children hospitalized with COVID-19 and those admitted for other reasons but who had coronavirus infections.
The CDC also said the increase could be in part due to how hospitalizations for COVID-19 in this age group are defined: a positive virus test within 14 days of hospitalization for any reason. it would be.
The severity of illness in children during the Omicron wave appears lower than it was with the Delta variant, the chief of intensive care at Seattle Children’s Hospital said. Dr John McGuire.
“Most of the COVID + children in the hospital are actually not here for the COVID-19 disease,” McGuire said in an email. “They are here for other issues but have turned out to be positive.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said this week that Omicron appears to cause less severe disease across the board, but the large number of infections due to its extreme contagiousness will mean many more children will be infected, and some of them will end up in hospital.
Fauci also said that many children hospitalized with COVID-19 have other health conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from the virus. These include obesity, diabetes and lung disease.
Fauci and Walensky stressed that one of the best ways to protect younger children is to immunize everyone.
The upsurge in hospitalizations only exacerbates the concerns of some parents.
Emily Hojara and Eli Zilke of Sawyer, Michigan are very protective of their daughter Flora, who turns 2 in May. They limit his contact with other children and no visitors are allowed in the house unless they are masked, not even the grandparents.
“It’s been a struggle, and now with this new variant I feel like it’s put us back,” Hojara said.
“It’s scary that she can’t be vaccinated,” she said of her daughter.
Dr Jennifer Kusma, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, said she has seen an increasing number of children hospitalized with Omicron, and although most are not seriously ill, she understands parents’ concerns.
“I really wish we had this vaccine already for these young children,” Kusma said. But she added that what may seem like a long wait should reassure parents that vaccine tests are not rushed.
Many were hoping the New Year would bring a vaccine for young children, but Pfizer announced last month that two doses did not provide as much protection as they hoped for in 2- to 4-year-olds.
The Pfizer study has been updated to give everyone under 5 a third dose, and results are expected in early spring.
Friday also, the CDC released a report showing that Pfizer-BioNTech injections appear to protect older children who develop a serious but rare disease linked to COVID-19 that involves inflammation of multiple organs.
Of the 102 children aged 12 to 18 who were hospitalized for the disease, none who had received two Pfizer injections at least 28 days earlier needed ventilators or other advanced resuscitation equipment. In contrast, 40% of unvaccinated children required such treatment.
The disease, multisystem inflammatory syndrome, causes symptoms that can include persistent fever, abdominal pain, and rash. Most of the children are recovering, but 55 deaths have been reported.
A separate CDC report found that children with COVID-19 were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as children who had not had the virus. Scientists are studying why, but say the virus appears to attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Associated Press medical writer Carla K. Johnson contributed from Seattle.