Children and young people were once believed to be at lower risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Emerging variants are now leveling the playing field, however, and experts warn that children and young patients may pay the price for adults who are hesitant to get a COVID vaccine.
With the highly contagious delta variant quickly spreading across the United States, 46 states are reporting new cases at least 10% higher than the rate of new cases in the previous week.
A mid-June outbreak at an Illinois summer camp resulted in 85 teens and adult staffers testing positive for COVID-19. This suggests that young people are by no means immune to transmitting and spreading the disease. In Mississippi, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs reported this week that seven children diagnosed with COVID-19 are currently in the ICU, with two on ventilators. “Please be safe and if you are 12 or older — please protect yourself,” Dobbs tweeted on July 13.
As cases continue to increase, only around 48% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 vaccines are currently available only to people aged 12 and older in the U.S., with clinical trials underway for children six months through 11 years old. Both Pfizer and Moderna expect to have data regarding the effectiveness of their vaccines for younger children by the fall.
Vaccinologist Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN that if vaccination rates among adults and kids 12 and older don’t catch up with the spread of the delta variant, the youngest members of our population may experience the most severe consequences.
“Transmission will continue to accelerate … and the ones who will also pay the price, in addition to the unvaccinated adolescents, are the little kids who depend on the adults and adolescents to get vaccinated in order to slow or halt transmission,” Hotez said.
Hotez warned not to write off the risks of COVID-19 when it comes to children simply due to their low mortality rates. Young patients can still suffer serious complications, including neurological disorders among “long haul” patients. In April, the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry found that 34% of COVID-19 patients were diagnosed with a neurological or psychological condition within six months of infection.
Hotez believes that up to 30% of children infected with COVID-19 could eventually develop long-haul symptoms.
“What you’re doing is condemning a whole generation of adolescents to neurologic injury totally unnecessarily,” Hotez said. “It’s just absolutely heartbreaking and beyond frustrating for vaccine scientists like myself to see this happen.”
Complicating the issue, the CDC recently updated its guidance to advise that wearing masks in school buildings won’t be necessary for fully vaccinated students and teachers when classrooms reopen for the 2021 school year. It will ultimately be up to individual states and municipalities to set their respective mandates.
State health officials in California announced that the new school year will start with all students and teachers wearing masks, only to pull back on the assertion hours later.
At least seven states—including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma, and Utah—have already enacted legislation that would prevent public schools from requiring vaccinations or documentation of vaccination status, according to CNN.
Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Obama administration, says this type of legislation could hurt 48 million young Americans.
“If we start with a lens on the children and wanting children to get back to school, which is what we all say is the priority, then we have to get more serious about employers and schools and universities stepping up and saying, ‘It’s great if you don’t want to be vaccinated. But if you don’t, you really can’t have access to places that will put you in contact with folks who can’t get vaccinated,'” Sebelius said.
Children aren’t the only ones affected by rising cases. With the spread of variants, doctors are now seeing many young adults and middle-aged patients in COVID-19 hospital wards.
“We’re now seeing people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s — young people who are really sick,” Dr. Vishnu Chundi, an infectious disease physician and chair of the Chicago Medical Society’s COVID-19 task force, told NPR in May. “Most of them make it, but some do not. I just lost a 32-year-old with two children, so it’s heartbreaking.”
Adults under 50 now account for the highest number of COVID-19 hospital admissions in the U.S., with those aged 50-64 just behind. Hospitalizations among adults over 65 have fallen significantly, likely due to higher vaccination rates among that demographic.