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Child Covid-19 hospitalizations soar, filling pediatric wings, data show

The U.S. faces another peak in child hospitalizations as the delta variant hits communities hesitant to get vaccinated.
Image: Anne Marie Baker, a nurse at the Children's Hospital of San Antonio in Texas, disinfects the room of a teenager who died from Covid-19 on Aug. 10, 2021.
Anne Marie Baker, a nurse at Children's Hospital of San Antonio, disinfects the room of a teenager who died from Covid-19 on Aug. 10.Meridith Kohut / NYT via Redux file

Two weeks ago, only two or three children a day would come into Dr. Nick Hysmith’s hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, with Covid-19, usually ones who were admitted for other reasons, like broken bones.

This week, he is seeing as many as 28 children under 18 a day, some of them landing in the intensive care unit.

Around the country, child hospitalizations for Covid-19 have increased to levels not seen since January, when U.S. cases and deaths were at their highest levels, according to the latest government data. Doctors in the hospitals hardest hit by the recent surge say the situation is worse than it was in January.

It happened fast: As of Wednesday, U.S. hospitals were tending to an average of more than 1,200 children a day, twice the number from the end of July and four times from the start of July, according to an NBC News analysis of data released this week by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The data show the U.S. facing another peak in child hospitalizations as the delta variant of the coronavirus hits communities hesitant to get vaccinated. And while unvaccinated adults are filling ICUs in parts of the South, minors in those areas are filling up the pediatric wings at an alarming pace.

Hysmith, who is medical director of infection prevention at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, said the influx was alarming.

“We went from single digits with not really sick kids to 28 kids in a matter of a few weeks, and some of them are quite sick,” he said.

In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, 37 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, compared to Tennessee’s full vaccination rate of 40 percent.

An increase in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, an illness that primarily affects children and has symptoms similar to those of Covid, has also made things worse, Hysmith said.

“We're sitting at about 95-97 percent occupancy right now, which is normally where we are in the dead of winter,” he said. “So that's concerning, because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks.”

The HHS data show that pediatric hospitalizations when adjusted for population are highest in Alabama, Florida, Delaware, Louisiana and Oklahoma; in all but Delaware, full vaccination rates are lower than the national rate.

Other data show an accelerating trend, including a study released this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which showed that Covid cases among children rose in the first week of August to more than 93,800 from a low of about 8,400 in June. Reuters reported that the U.S. hit a record of 1,900 children hospitalized on Saturday.

Hospitalizations are rising as some children return to the classroom in an acrimonious back-to-school kickoff that has politicians, parents and school officials fighting over mask mandates.

In Texas, which leads the country with an average of 219 children a day in the hospital for Covid, Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued an executive order last month banning vaccination and mask mandates. Several school districts defied the order with mask mandates, and on Sunday, the state Supreme Court temporarily blocked such mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties. (Abbott tested positive for Covid on Tuesday.)

Texas, with 45 percent of the state fully vaccinated, is averaging 15,000 Covid cases a day, at the higher end of state Covid rates when adjusted for population.

At the start of the pandemic, pediatric hospitalizations were rare, but with the more aggressive delta strain, children are now packing hospitals.

Florida has the second-highest number of hospitalizations, at an average of 188 children a day, as of the latest figures.

Dr. Marcos Mestre, the chief medical officer at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, is keeping a close eye on the number of minors in beds with Covid symptoms as school starts.

He said the hospital has had 86 patients so far in August, up from 76 in all of July and 16 in June.

“If we continue at this pace, we’ll be at our highest number of patients in a month” since July 2020, “which was our peak in Miami.”

Mestre said almost all of the older children, who make up about half the current hospitalizations, were unvaccinated.

According to the latest report from the Florida Health Department, 44 percent of the state’s teenagers have been vaccinated. Half of Florida’s population has been vaccinated.

In Alabama, where pediatric cases have started to rise, an average of 43 children a day are in the hospital with Covid.

“It’s been a pretty busy week,” said Dr. Scott James, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who treats patients at Children’s of Alabama hospital.

“We began seeing increased hospitalizations in children towards the end of July. And we’ve now surpassed our previous peak from last January,” he said.

James said that most of the older children being hospitalized are unvaccinated teens and that it has been difficult having families walk their children through ICU-level care.

“In our profession, we’re called to be near suffering. So we’re right where we want to be. We’re here on the front lines serving in this pandemic,” he said.

“But I do have to say it does wear on us knowing that so much of this suffering was preventable.”