Children's hospitals fill up as delta, virus cases soar

Growing COVID-19 infections among children in the U.S. have sparked an influx of pediatric hospitalizations in certain areas of the country in recent weeks, alarming parents and experts as the country prepares to send children back to in-person school. 

More than 1,400 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the most recent week of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reaching a record seven-day average of 239 pediatric admissions per day.

These hospitalizations are straining several children’s hospitals across the country, with some in Louisiana and Texas reporting bed shortages.

ADVERTISEMENT

“While kids have been more resistant, and that's good news, they're not immortal around this,” Children’s Hospital Association CEO Mark Wietecha said. “We've had plenty of kids die, and we've had plenty of kids be impacted. And we just encourage parents to be as diligent as possible.”

While hospitals are battling a rise in coronavirus infections among children, many institutions across the country have also reported a surge in cases of a respiratory virus called RSV that usually hits in fall and winter but has already attacked this summer.

Before a recent surge of pediatric COVID-19 patients, Children’s Hospital New Orleans had been operating at full capacity since at least June amid these viral cases, said Leron Finger, the chief quality officer at the hospital.

Texas Children’s Hospital reported 45 COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Wednesday, including at least 25 with both RSV and COVID-19, the Houston Chronicle reported. About half of the hospital’s patients dealing with both viruses are infants, and most are younger than 5 years old.

The viral infections coupled with the rapid increase in coronavirus cases among older children represents a duel threat facing many families.

Finger said his Louisiana hospital has seen an “exponential increase” in pediatric COVID-19 patients since the end of July.

ADVERTISEMENT

Patient ages have spanned from infancy to early 20s, with none being fully vaccinated and most being previously healthy children, he said.  

“We have certainly seen more kids and more younger adults get severely sick during this wave than we have at any other time,” Finger said. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics found almost 94,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases among children last week  amounting to 15 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S. 

The highly contagious delta variant has driven an overall increase in cases across the country, with officials saying the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among unvaccinated people.

Health experts still consider children to be at lower risk for serious illness and hospitalization but as more adults get vaccinated, children make up more of the unvaccinated population that is more susceptible to the variant.

Experts also note that while it’s unclear at this point if the delta strain causes more severe illness in children, with higher case counts in general, more hospital admissions are expected. 

Keri Althoff, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the surge in children’s cases “is running in lockstep” with the delta surge.

“The question really is, is the rate of hospitalization changing in kids?” Althoff said. “And what that would signal is that this virus is acting differently in children."

Wietecha, with the Children’s Hospital Association, said states with the lowest vaccination rates among 12- to 17-year-olds have the “most congestion” in the children’s hospitals. 

Arkansas Children’s Hospital reported its highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the pandemic in late July, with 24 admissions. 

“As far as understanding the vaccine’s ability to keep kids out of the hospital and the efficacy of masking and social distancing, all those things work, and where we don't do those things we have growth in the caseload and we have growth in our hospitals,” he said.

Children under 12 years old remain ineligible to get the vaccine, and there are limited vaccination rates among adolescents, leaving much of the younger population at risk of contracting COVID-19 as delta sweeps the nation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Wietecha emphasized that pediatric beds are also filling with those battling RSV as well as mental health issues.

Cases of RSV, which causes flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening for babies and younger children, soared starting in June.

The rise in cases has preceded or hit alongside COVID-19 in several states, stretching children’s hospitals to their limits. Texas saw an apparent peak of more than 500 confirmed RSV cases in mid-July, at about the same time the state’s daily COVID-19 rate picked up.

When it comes to COVID-19, it's unclear when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will authorize vaccinations for children younger than 12 years old.

The American Academy of Pediatrics called on the FDA last week to move more quickly in authorizing vaccinations for this age group as the school year quickly approaches.

In total, less than 12 percent of all children, including those eligible to get the vaccine, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the Mayo Clinic

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning in the upcoming weeks.

When asked about his concerns about school-aged children going back to school, President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE said Tuesday, “My concerns are deep and I’m very concerned.”

“I also understand that the reason children are becoming infected is because, in most cases, they live in low-vaccination rate states and communities and they’re getting it from unvaccinated adults,” Biden added. “That’s what’s happening. And so my plea is that for those not vaccinated, think about it."

To protect unvaccinated children, experts said all eligible household members should get vaccinated and families should utilize precautions like masking and distancing.

Although children have made up about 0.1 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, experts noted that the virus has still killed hundreds of children and not much is known about the effects of long COVID-19 in children.