The rising Omicron variant in the United States is feeding thousands of new COVID-19 hospitalizations among children, raising new concerns about how unvaccinated Americans under the age of 18 will fare in the new boom.
Doctors said the more serious COVID-19 symptoms they see in children in the hospital this month include difficulty breathing, high fever and dehydration.
“They need help to breathe, they need help to get oxygen, they need extra hydration. “They are sick enough to end up in the hospital, and it’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 number of daily new COVID-19 cases worldwide has one million crossed for the first time since infections were first recorded two years ago, and new infections in the US have risen to their highest level on record since the pandemic began.
The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations for children between Dec. 21 and Dec. 27 rose more than 58 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An increase in cases occurred when schools closed for the winter holidays.
Doctors say it is too early to determine whether Omicron causes worse disease in children, but its extremely high portability is one key factor driving hospitalizations.
“It will infect more people and it will infect more people. We have seen numbers increase, we have seen hospitalizations in children increase, ”says Dr Jennifer Nayak, an infectious disease expert and pediatrician at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
“What we are seeing is that children under five remain unvaccinated, so there is still a relatively large population of children who are naive, so they have no pre-existing immunity to this virus,” Nayak said.
To date, there is no authorized vaccine in the US for children under the age of 5. In New York City, data show that children under the age of 5 now make up nearly half of the total new hospital cases.
The U.S.’s largest city has one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S., but only about 40 percent of 5- to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, compared to more than 80 percent of adults, city health data shows.
Hospitalizations in New York City of people aged 18 and under increased from 22 in the week beginning December 5 to 109 the week of December 19th. Hospitalizations of people 18 and younger throughout the state were at 184 the week of December 19, from 70 to December 5th.
Other parts of the US are seeing an increase 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 seen a doubling of the seven-day average for hospitalization of minor patients in the past week, CDC data show.
Omicron cases are expected to rise even faster across the US as schools reopen next week, experts warned.
Prior to the holiday, more than a thousand classrooms were either fully or partially quarantined due to outbreaks in New York City. The city said it would open schools for about a million children as planned on Jan. 3, following the winter recess.
Nationwide, less than 25 percent of the 74 million Americans under the age of 18 have been vaccinated, according to the CDC. Young children have much lower vaccination rates than other age groups, with some families hesitate to introduce a new vaccine to their youngest members.
“The virus could just outsmart – further penetrate – what it’s what the parents did to shelter those children,” said William Schaffner, a leading communicator of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Even with the increasing infections, Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York City will ring in Times Square in 2022 as planned.
“We want to show that we’re moving forward, and we want to show the world that New York City is fighting our way through this,” de Blasio, whose last day in office is Friday, told NBC’s “Today” program.
The city banned New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square a year ago.