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The rise in cases of COVID-19 among children in the U.S. is primarily linked to the Delta variant. Cases are rising especially quickly in communities with low rates of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source recommend universal indoor masking and physical distancing in schools, mask-wearing is optional in North Dakota and Ohio.
Rapidly increasing infection rates among children and teachers have forced many schools in the U.S. to halt in-person learning and turn to hybrid models of education. This comes despite 175 pediatric disease experts agreeing earlier this year that elementary schools could open full-time for in-person instruction.
Although children generally have milder COVID-19 symptomsTrusted Source than adults, the fact that few studies have investigated how the disease affects children means that many questions remain unanswered. For example, why are so many children being hospitalized with COVID-19? Which children are most at risk? And what can parents and authorities do so that children can return to school safely?
To answer these questions and more, Medical News Today spoke with seven doctors and researchers who specialize in pediatrics and infectious diseases and have worked directly with children with COVID-19.
Why are COVID-19 hospitalizations among children increasing?
The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more than two timesTrusted Source as contagious as previous variants. Alongside school reopenings, this may partially explain the increase in pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
“The Delta variant that is circulating widely is more contagious, and children are getting infected more often than previously during the pandemic,” Michael L. Chang, M.D., director of pediatric antimicrobial stewardship for McGovern Medical School and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Texas, told MNT. “Also, across the country, mitigation measures such as masks, reduced occupancy indoors, physical distancing, etc., all ended around the same time.”
“Now, you have a more contagious variant with fewer mitigation measures in place. With the rising number of cases, unfortunately, you will see more hospitalizations. As an example, if 2% of children need hospitalization, then it’s a big difference between 2% of 10,000 cases vs. 2% of 100,000 cases,” he added.
Another reason for rising COVID-19 hospitalizations among children may be that those under the age of 12 years cannot get the vaccination yet.
“Vaccines remain effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death from [SARS-CoV-2] infection, even Delta strain infection,” Kristin Moffitt, M.D., an infectious disease expert at Boston Children’s Hospital, MA, told MNT. “This is consistent with reports that the overwhelming majority of hospitalizations and deaths during the recent surge are occurring in unvaccinated individuals.”
“Since children under 12 aren’t yet able to be vaccinated, and many adolescents and young adults remain unvaccinated relative to older individuals, this age group is making up a bigger proportion of those at risk for severe illness based on their unvaccinated status,” she added.
Dr. Karen Ravin, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Delaware, agreed. “Children under 12 years of age make up a substantial proportion of the unvaccinated population in the U.S., so they are the population at highest risk,” she said. “Early in the pandemic, schools were closed, and children had a lower risk of exposure in the community. Contrast this to now, schools are open for in-person instruction […] so children are at greater risk for being exposed, becoming infected, and, unfortunately, being hospitalized.”
“Early in the pandemic, those over 65 accounted for more severe disease and hospitalization. Now that this age group has a higher percentage of vaccinated persons, the disease burden will be seen in the younger, unvaccinated population,” noted Dr. Adriana Cadilla, an infectious diseases pediatric specialist at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, FL. “[In Florida,] there has been over a four-fold increase in child [SARS-CoV-2] infections in the past month,” Dr. Cadilla added.