Omicron is sending thousands of children to US hospitals

COVID hospitalisations for children jumped 58 percent across the US in the past week, CDC data shows.

A woman swabs her son's nose for a COVID test at a pop-up site in New York City
Katie Lucey administers a COVID-19 test on her son Maguire at a PCR and rapid antigen test pop-up site in New York City [Ted Shaffrey/ AP Photo]

The surging Omicron variant in the United States is fuelling thousands of new COVID-19 hospitalisations among children, raising new concerns about how unvaccinated Americans under the age of 18 will fare in the new surge.

Doctors said the more severe COVID-19 symptoms they are seeing in hospitalised children this month include difficulty breathing, high fever, and dehydration.

“They need help breathing, they need help getting oxygen, they need extra hydration. They are sick enough to end up in the hospital, and that’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 crossed one million for the first time since infections were first recorded two years ago, and new infections in the US have soared to their highest level on record since the pandemic began.

The seven-day-average of daily hospitalisations for children between December 21 and December 27 rose more than 58 percent, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A surge in cases occurred as schools closed for the winter holidays.

a 13-year old boy receives a Pfizer COVID vaccine
Children aged 5 to 17 are eligible for a COVID jab in the United States [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

Doctors say it is too early to determine whether Omicron causes more severe illness in children, but its extremely high transmissibility is one key factor that is driving up hospitalisations.

“It is going to infect more people and it is infecting more people. We’ve seen numbers go up, we’ve seen hospitalisations in kids go up,” said Dr Jennifer Nayak, an infectious disease expert and paediatrician at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“What we are seeing is that children under five remain unvaccinated so there’s still a relatively large population of children who are naive, so they have no preexisting immunity to this virus,” said Nayak.

As yet, there is no authorised vaccine in the US for children under the age of 5. In New York City, data shows children under the age of 5 now account for almost half of the total new hospital cases.

The US’s biggest city has one of the highest vaccination rates in the US, but only about 40 percent of 5-to-17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 80 percent of adults, city health data shows.

Hospitalisations in New York City of people aged 18 and younger increased from 22 in the week starting December 5 to 109 for the week of December 19. Hospitalisations of people 18 and under in the entire state were at 184 in the week of December 19, up from 70 from December 5.

Other parts of the US also are seeing a spike in cases among children. Ohio has seen a 125 percent increase in hospitalisations among children 17 and under in the past four weeks, according to data from the Ohio Hospital Association.

Florida, New Jersey and Illinois have witnessed a doubling of the seven-day average for hospitalisations of underage patients over the past week, CDC data shows.

Omicron cases are expected to surge even faster across the US as schools reopen next week, experts cautioned.

Prior to the holidays, more than 1,000 classrooms in New York City had been either fully or partially quarantined due to outbreaks. The city said it would open schools for about one million children as planned on January 3, following the winter recess.

Nationwide, fewer than 25 percent of the 74 million Americans under aged 18 are vaccinated, according to the CDC. Young children have far lower vaccination rates than other age groups, with some families hesitating to introduce a new vaccine to their youngest members.

NYC Mayor de Blasio says the city will celebrate New Year’s in Times Square despite the Omicron surge [AP Photo/Corey Sipkin]

“The virus has just been able to outsmart – penetrate beyond – what it is the parents have done to shelter those children,” said William Schaffner, a leading infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Even with the rising infections, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said New York City will ring in 2022 in Times Square 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, said on NBC’s “Today” programme. The city had banned New Year’s revellers from Times Square a year ago.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies