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Children’s hospitals are filling nationwide amid tidal wave of omicron

A Boston Medical Center pediatrician performs a checkup on an 8-month-old while her father provides her comfort in a pediatrics tent set up outside of Boston Medical Center in Boston on April 29, 2020.
Enlarge / A Boston Medical Center pediatrician performs a checkup on an 8-month-old while her father provides her comfort in a pediatrics tent set up outside of Boston Medical Center in Boston on April 29, 2020.

The number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the US is skyrocketing amid the omicron wave, with new admissions up 66 percent in the last week and now past the all-time record high for the pandemic.

The surge in pediatric hospitalizations comes amid a record-smashing vertical rise in overall cases, which is being driven by the ultratransmissible omicron coronavirus variant. Though preliminary data continues to link omicron waves to milder disease and fewer hospitalizations compared with previous variants, it’s still unclear if the variant is intrinsically less virulent in people generally, and specifically children, specifically.

Laboratory studies continue to indicate that omicron causes milder lung disease in rodents than previous variants. But, mild omicron waves in humans have largely been seen in populations with high levels of preexisting protection from prior COVID-19 infection and/or vaccination. Such populations are expected to have less severe disease overall.

Still, even if omicron does cause milder disease, it can still easily trounce health care systems—as we are already seeing. The colossal number of omicron infections means that even a relatively small proportion of severe cases will still result in a large number of people in the hospital.

On Wednesday, the US logged its highest single-day tally of new COVID-19 cases yet in the pandemic: 488,988 cases, according to data tracking by the New York Times. The seven-day average is also at an all-time high of 301,472, up 153 percent over the past two weeks. This average breaks the previous record, set in early January of last year, at around 250,000 cases.

So far, daily hospitalizations are up 14 percent overall in the last two weeks, and the current seven-day average is up to 77,851. Though hospitalizations typically lag case rises by a week or more, the rise in hospitalizations to date appears to be smaller than would be expected based on previous variants.

But hospitalizations in children have seen a steeper incline. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current seven-day average for new daily hospital admissions in children under 17 is 378. The current rate of child hospital admissions with COVID-19 is now higher than ever before in the pandemic, with a rate of 0.52 admissions per 100,000. The previous record, set in early September, was 0.47.

In a White House press briefing Wednesday, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci noted that it’s still unclear how severe omicron will be in children. “Certainly, more children are being infected with the highly transmissible virus, and with that, there naturally will be more hospitalizations in children,” Fauci said. “It is noteworthy, however, that many children are hospitalized with COVID as opposed to because of COVID, reflecting the high degree of penetrance of infection among the pediatric population.”

While COVID-19 has tended to be milder in children than in adults with previous variants, it can still be severe and even deadly. So far in the pandemic, 1,040 children aged 17 and younger have died from COVID-19, including 332 children under the age of 5. The CDC has also recorded 5, 973 cases of MIS-C, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a rare complication of COVID-19 in children. Of those MIS-C cases, 52 were fatal.

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