More Kids Are Being Hospitalized With COVID-19—But Experts Say Parents Shouldn't Worry Too Much
The Omicron variant certainly hasn't let parents ease into 2022. The U.S. has reported record-breaking COVID-19 cases in the past few weeks. Pediatric infections have also reached the highest point since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
"For the week ending December 30, 2021, more than 325,000 cases were reported among children—a 64 percent increase from the previous week and nearly double the cases from two weeks prior," says Dr. Noah Greenspan, PT, DPT, a cardiopulmonary physical therapist and the director of Pulmonary Wellness ComplexPT, who has been treating COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic.
The explosive growth of pediatric cases has led to a spike in child hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that an average of 672 children with COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals daily during the week ending January 3, 2022—"the highest number of the pandemic seen so far," says Dr. Greenspan. (Though it's important to note these numbers might include infected children who were admitted for other reasons besides COVID, as The New York Times reports.)
Admittedly, the trend seems scary, but experts say parents shouldn't worry too much. That's because Omicron is usually mild in kids, and the rise in hospitalizations is largely due to the increased transmissibility of the variant. The key to protecting our kids is listening to current health data and practicing proper safety precautions.
"When parents (or anyone for that matter) ask if they should be worried, the answer is they already are, and in this case, rightfully so," says Dr. Greenspan, "The question is, are they worried enough to listen to scientists and do something about it? This requires that they tune out the many myths and misconceptions that are pervasive in society today. I'm not saying that they need to panic, but they need to exercise extreme caution, combined with common sense if they want to keep their kids safe."
Here's everything you need to know, with expert-approved tips for keeping your kids safe during the latest COVID-19 surge.
What's Causing the Rise in Pediatric COVID-19 Hospitalizations?
The rising COVID-19 hospitalizations in children largely reflects cause and effect. "When we put it in context of what's going on around the country, it's more of a reflection of the overall surge. Omicron is more contagious, and the numbers infected in the community are much higher, which leads to higher hospitalization rates," explains Preeti Parikh, M.D., Executive Medical Director at GoodRx and a practicing board-certified pediatrician.
So far, Omicron actually appears less severe than previous strains of the coronavirus. Symptoms often resemble a common cold in young people, and they include runny nose, congestion, sore throat, fever, cough, and tiredness. "Some children are also experiencing gastrointestinal trouble such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea," says Andrea Kallah, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Health of Orange County.
That said, young children (particularly those under 5) might be more at risk because their airways are narrower. "This makes it more likely that they will develop respiratory complications like bronchiolitis, which causes inflammation and mucus build-up in the airways and makes it more difficult to breathe," says Dr. Greenspan.
Dr. Kallah has noticed that vaccination status largely plays a role in severity of COVID-19 infection. The vast majority of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 aren't vaccinated. "A person who has been fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 will be less sick than someone who hasn't been vaccinated," says Dr. Kallah. Children younger than 5 aren't able to get vaccinated yet, so they're naturally more vulnerable to the virus—and the same goes for older children and teens who are eligible but haven't gotten vaccinated yet.
How to Protect Your Kids from COVID-19
Although most children get mild cases of COVID-19 that resemble a cold, it's still important to protect them from the virus, especially during this current surge. "Pediatric specialists worry that more children will be admitted to hospitals in the coming weeks because Omicron is spreading fast and will likely cause infections to soar. And who wants their child to have a bad cold if there is anything we can do about it?" says Dr. Greenspan.
The best way to protect your family is vaccination. Everyone over 5 years old can be vaccinated against COVID-19. All approved vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) have been shown to protect against severe hospitalization and death, including against the transmissible Delta and Omicron variants. Kids ages 12 and up recently got the go-ahead for a booster shot, which helps protect against waning immunity over time. And certain immunocompromised kids ages 5 to 11 can get an additional dose 28 days after their second shot.
"The sooner parents start vaccinating, the sooner children will get the protection they need," says Dr. Kallah. "The effectiveness of the vaccine against serious, life-threatening illness is extraordinary."
Don't panic if your child isn't eligible for vaccination yet. According to Dr. Kallah, the best thing to do is surrounding unvaccinated children with people who have been vaccinated. This creates a bubble of protection around the child, making it less likely that they'll contract COVID-19.
Also, whether their kids are vaccinated or not, families should continue practicing health precautions. That includes wearing high-quality, proper fitting masks—especially in crowded indoor venues where social distancing is difficult. Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, and always stay home when you're sick. COVID testing is also important to help prevent spread, adds Dr. Parikh. Finally, remember to stay up-to-date on your child's other vaccinations, including the flu shot.
When to Head to the Hospital
Based on state-reported data gathered by the AAP, only between 0.1 and 1.6 percent of child coronavirus cases result in hospitalization. But even so, it's important to recognize when your child needs help.
First things first: Always check with your pediatrician before heading to the hospital if you're unsure. "You do not want to go to the ER or hospital unnecessarily," says Dr. Parikh. "And now there are even options to do telemedicine when appropriate."
Dr. Kallah and Dr. Greenspan say you should visit the emergency room for the following signs: dehydration, severe breathing problems, high fevers, prolonged gastrointestinal problems, bluish lips, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, extreme fatigue, or the inability to stay awake.
"Otherwise, if the child has tested positive for COVID-19 and is experiencing mild cold symptoms, the best thing a parent can do is tend to their symptoms, keep them hydrated, and keep them isolated at home and away from other people until their quarantine period elapses," says Dr. Kallah.
The Bottom Line
Based on current research, Omicron appears to be less severe in children, causing symptoms that resemble a bad cold. Hospitalizations are rare in young people, but experts urge families to stay cautious as coronavirus cases continue to rise. "It's important to vaccinate, boost, mask, social distance and practice proper hygiene," says Dr. Parikh. We do not know the long-term effects of Omicron so we should still try our best to protect our children as much as possible."