Hospitalizations of American children under 5 with COVID-19 have skyrocketed in recent weeks to their highest level since the start of the pandemic, according to government data released Friday on the only age group not yet eligible for the vaccine.
The disturbing trend in children too young to be vaccinated underscores the need for older children and adults to get vaccinated to protect those around them, said Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Since mid-December, as the highly contagious variant of omicron has spread furiously across the country, the hospitalization rate of these youngest children has risen to more than 4 per 100,000 young people, from 2, 5 per 100,000.
This compares to a current rate of around 1 per 100,000 for children ages 5 to 17, according to CDC data.
In a statement, Walensky said that while children still have the lowest hospitalization rate of all age groups, “pediatric hospitalizations are at their highest rate compared to any time prior to the pandemic “.
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During a briefing, she said the figures included children hospitalized with COVID-19 and those admitted for other reasons but found infected.
She noted that just over 50% of children aged 12 to 18 are fully immunized and only 16% of those aged 5 to 11 are fully immunized.
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On Tuesday, the average number of children and adolescents admitted to hospital per day with COVID-19 was 766, double the figure reported just two weeks ago.
During a White House briefing this week, Dr.Anthony Fauci, America’s foremost infectious disease expert, said many children hospitalized with COVID-19 have other health issues that make them more susceptible to complications of the virus. This includes obesity, diabetes, and lung disease.
Fauci and Walensky stressed that one of the best ways to protect younger children is to immunize everyone.
Data suggests that booster shots offer the best protection against omicron, and the CDC recommended them this week for children as young as 12 years old. Among older people already eligible, only 34% received them.
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The increase in the number of hospitalizations only exacerbates the concerns of parents concerned about the safety of their infants and toddlers.
Emily Hojara and Eli Zilke of Sawyer, Michigan are very protective of their daughter Flora, who turns 2 in May. They limit his contact with other children and no visitors are allowed in the house unless they are masked, not even the grandparents.
“It’s been a struggle, and now with this new variant I feel like it’s put us back,” Hojara said. She said the new hospitalization data “just reminds you that this anxiety is hovering really close.”
“It’s scary that she can’t be vaccinated,” Hojara said of her daughter.
Dr Jennifer Kusma, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, said she has seen an increasing number of children hospitalized with omicron, and while most are not seriously ill, she understands parents’ concerns.
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“As a pediatrician, I really wish we had this vaccine for these young children already,” Kusma said. But she added that what may seem like a long wait should reassure parents that vaccine tests are not rushed.
Many were hoping the New Year might bring a vaccine for young children, but Pfizer announced last month that two doses did not provide as much protection as hoped for young people between the ages of 2 and 4.
The Pfizer study has been updated to give everyone under 5 a third dose, and data is expected in early spring.
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