Health

COVID-19 hospitalisation surge among US children spurs new omicron concerns

The
seven-day-average number of daily hospitalisations for children between Dec 21
and Dec 27 is up more than 58 percent nationwide in the past week to 334,
compared to around 19 percent for all age groups, data from the US Centres for
Disease Control and Prevention show. Fewer than 25 percent of the 74 million
Americans under 18 are vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Omicron
cases are expected to surge even faster across the United States as schools
reopen next week after the winter holiday, experts cautioned.

Doctors say
it is too early to determine whether omicron causes more severe illness in
children than other variants of the coronavirus, but that its extremely high
transmissibility is one key factor that is driving up hospitalizations.

“It is
going to infect more people and it is infecting more people. We’ve seen numbers
go up, we’ve seen hospitalisations in kids go up,” said Dr. Jennifer
Nayak, an infectious disease expert and pediatrician at the University of
Rochester Medical Centre.

“What
we are seeing is that children under five remain unvaccinated so there’s still
a relatively large population of children who are naive, so they have no
preexisting immunity to this virus,” said Nayak.

Even in New
York City, which has some of the highest vaccination rates in the United
States, only around 40 percentof 5-to-17-year-olds are fully vaccinated
compared with more than 80 percent of adults, city health data shows. There is
no authorized vaccine for US children under the age of 5. Hospitalisations in
New York City of people aged 18 and younger increased from 22 the week starting
Dec. 5 to 109 between Dec 19 and Dec 23. Children under the age of 5
represented almost half of the total cases. Hospitalisations of people 18 and
under in the entire state were at 184 from Dec 19 to Dec 23, up from 70 from
Dec 5 to Dec. 11.

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Other parts
of the United States are also seeing a spike in cases among children. Ohio has
seen a 125 percent increase in hospitalizations among children 17 and under in
the past four weeks, according to data from the Ohio Hospital Association.

Florida, New
Jersey and Illinois have witnessed an increase of at least double in the seven-day
average daily hospitalisation of underage patients with the coronavirus over
the past week, CDC data shows.

SLOW UPTAKE

Young
children have far lower vaccination rates than other age groups, with some
families hesitating to introduce a new vaccine to their youngest members.

Fewer than
15 percent of US children aged 5-11 have been fully vaccinated since Pfizer Inc
and BioNTech’s COVID-19 shot was authorised for that age group in late October,
federal data shows.

Doctors said
the more severe COVID-19 symptoms they are seeing in hospitalized children this
month include difficulty breathing, high fever, and dehydration.

“They
need help breathing, they need help getting oxygen, they need extra hydration.
They are sick enough to end up in the hospital, and that’s scary for doctors,
and it’s scary for parents,” said Rebecca Madan, a pediatric infectious
disease specialist at New York University’s Langone Health hospital system.

The surge in
cases occurred as schools closed for the winter holidays. Before the vacation,
more than a thousand classrooms have been either fully or partially quarantined
due to outbreaks, according to New York City data. The city said it will open
schools for about a million children as planned on Jan 3, following the
district’s winter recess.

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Research has
shown that a substantial amount of COVID-19 transmission among children tends
to happen outside of schools. But Madan and others expect a new spike in cases
among children from holiday gatherings, which could disrupt classroom
attendance.

“The
virus has just been able to outsmart, penetrate beyond, what it is the parents
have done to shelter those children,” said William Schaffner, a leading
infectious disease expert from the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

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