An increasing number of children have been hospitalized with coronavirus infections, just as the school year is about to begin. According to the CDC, the number of children under 5 that have been hospitalized tripled in July.
The number of child hospital beds throughout the country, especially in the South, are dwindling, and doctors are warning the worst may be yet to come. Dr. Kelechi Iheagwara, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at the Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, told NBC News her team was treating children as young as 3-weeks-old, servicing 26 patients in a ward meant only for 20.
In mid-July, they were treating 75 patients, the highest number in the entire pandemic so far. Within the first four days of August, 27 children were admitted into the emergency room with coronavirus infections. The number of cases are only expected to grow.
At Children’s Hospital New Orleans, multiple children were hospitalized in the ICU, including one boy less than a year old and one girl less than two years old.
“It is scary, especially for kids who don’t fully understand what’s going on. They’re air hungry, struggling for breath, and it’s just scary,” said Iheagwara. “You have the illness, the fear, they can’t breathe, they’re isolated — that’s hard for anyone to understand, but can you imagine what it’s like for a kid?”
In multiple states, doctors from six hospitals told NBC News that many cases are stemming from parents bringing the virus home and infecting their children. Many expressed frustration that adults who were eligible for the vaccine were not getting it, and then passing on the virus to their children who were too young to be vaccinated.
“We see it often within households, parents to children,” said Dr. Jim Versalovic, the chief pathologist and interim chief pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. “We have certainly seen siblings — more than two at times — with an infection at the same time, so spread within households is certainly a very real phenomenon.” The hospital has seen the positivity rate in children leap from 3% to more than 10%, and hospitalizations going from single-digits to more than 30 child patients.
At least 81 children died of the coronavirus between March and July, according to the CDC. Many fear it will only get worse, as the school year begins but many of the restrictions in place last year, such as mask mandates, have been relaxed even as coronavirus surges throughout the country.
In Arkansas, the virus has surged so dramatically that Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson is pushing for a mask mandate in schools, just a few months after signing a law that would ban state and local mask mandates.
Versalovic said he expected the FDA would approve the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children under 12 after the school year already began.
“Hopefully, there will be emergency authorization soon after we release the data, but we have to face the reality of beginning the school year without it,” he said. “We do anticipate having vaccines available for kids during the first half of the school year, but for children under 5 that’s likely to occur later in the year, possibly early 2022. It’s going to be an ongoing effort.”