The latest coronavirus surge sweeping the United States, much of it driven by the highly contagious omicron variant, has produced a worrisome spike in hospitalisations among children, not to mention heightened anxiety among parents nationwide.
Several states have reported increases of about 50% in pediatric admissions for Covid-19 in December. New York City has experienced the most dramatic rise, with 68 children hospitalized last week, a fourfold jump from two weeks earlier.
But even as experts expressed concern about a marked jump in hospitalizations — an increase more than double that among adults — doctors and researchers said they were not seeing evidence that omicron was more threatening to children.
In fact, preliminary data suggests that compared with the delta variant, omicron appears to be causing milder illness in children, similar to early findings for adults.
“I think the important story to tell here is that severity is way down and the risk for significant severe disease seems to be lower,” said Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Instead, much of the rise in pediatric admissions results from the sheer number of children who are becoming infected with delta and the more contagious omicron variant, he and other experts said, as well as low vaccination rates among children older than 5.
Younger children do not yet qualify for vaccination, and only those age 16 and older qualify for booster shots, which offer the most effective shield against infection and hospitalization.
The upshot is that children overall are somewhat less protected from the virus than adults. In the week ending Dec. 23, about 199,000 childhood cases were reported nationally, a 50% increase compared with the beginning of December, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Hospital leaders and critical care doctors said that nearly all the children hospitalized with Covid-19 had one thing in common: They were unvaccinated or undervaccinated.
“What we’re seeing in our ICU makes it crystal clear that vaccination is the single most important thing you can do to protect your kid from getting sick with this virus,” said Dr. James Schneider, chief of pediatric critical care at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New York.