As the new school year begins, pediatric hospitals are filled up with COVID patients

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Photo via Michael VH/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pediatric COVID-19 cases are currently skyrocketing in the United States, just as millions of children are getting ready to go back to school. Meanwhile, some states are banning mask mandates and eligible adults still refuse to get vaccinated for COVID while the beds at pediatric hospitals are getting full.

A weekly report released on Aug. 5 by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, which compiles state-level data on pediatric COVID-19 cases, found a “substantial” increase of nearly 94,000 new child COVID-19 cases in the previous week alone.

States with low vaccination rates such as Florida, Texas, and Louisiana are being hit particularly hard. According to federal data, Florida currently has the highest number of confirmed pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country, with 179 patients receiving care and one child on a ventilator at the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Texas is not far behind, with 161 confirmed pediatric patients hospitalized across the state.

Louisiana is now seeing the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the country, with the Children’s Hospital New Orleans calling it “an epidemic of very young children.”

Dr. Mark Kline, the hospital’s physician in chief, told Good Morning America on Aug. 9, that they are admitting “record numbers” of children. While pediatric COVID-19 cases used to make up 1% of patients hospitalized at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, Kline said that number is now roughly 20%.

“This is not your grandfather’s COVID,” said Kline. “Half of the children in our hospital today are under 2 years of age. Most of the others are between 5 and 10 years of age—too young to be vaccinated just yet.”

Currently, only children 12 years and older are eligible for the vaccines.

Many pediatric hospitals located in areas experiencing COVID-19 surges are seeing the same patterns. As a result, bed shortages and overworked doctors and nurses are now becoming more common. According to ABC News, the per capita rate of pediatric hospital admissions in children 17 and under is 3.75 times higher than it was in July 2021—or equal to January 2021, which was the highest point of the pandemic.

Dr. Marcos Mestre, vice president and chief medical officer of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, told ABC News that his teams have seen a “significant uptick” of pediatric COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. He said that children are left alone in some cases because their unvaccinated parents are battling the disease at another hospital.

Dr. Kelechi Iheagwara, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at the Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, told NBC News that her unit treated about 25 patients in a space designed for 20 in the past month. Patients they’re seeing range in age from three weeks old to 17 years.

“It is scary, especially for kids who don’t fully understand what’s going on. They’re air hungry, struggling for breath, and it’s just scary,” said Iheagwara. “You have the illness, the fear, they can’t breathe, they’re isolated—that’s hard for anyone to understand, but can you imagine what it’s like for a kid?”

In many cases, children are becoming infected through unvaccinated adult members of their households.

“Absolutely, household infections are the beginning of this pandemic. That is a major driving force in the spread of infections,” said Dr. Jim Versalovic, the chief pathologist and interim chief pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. 

Versalovic says it’s becoming common to see parents bringing the virus home to their children. “We have certainly seen siblings—more than two at times—with an infection at the same time, so spread within households is certainly a very real phenomenon,” added Versalovic.

As pediatric hospitals deal with COVID, there’s a push to vaccinate children under 12

Beyond masking, the only way to ensure that kids can safely return to school is for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the vaccine for children under 12.

In light of the recent data, Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, wrote a letter to the acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock on Aug. 5 to urge the agency to “continue working aggressively towards authorizing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 12 as soon as possible.”

“Simply stated, the delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country, as it has also done for unvaccinated adults,” wrote Beers.

Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston is currently conducting Pfizer and Moderna vaccine trials for kids under 12. However, Versalovic said that his team doesn’t anticipate sending their data to the FDA before the start of the school year.

“Hopefully, there will be emergency authorization soon after we release the data, but we have to face the reality of beginning the school year without it,” added Versalovic. “We do anticipate having vaccines available for kids during the first half of the school year, but for children under 5, that’s likely to occur later in the year, possibly early 2022. It’s going to be an ongoing effort.”

Sources: ABC News, NBC News, USA Today

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