Children make up a growing share of new coronavirus cases per week as overall infections decline with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, but infection and hospitalization rates among children remain stable.
In March 2020, children only accounted for about 2% of new infections. By the end of May, children made up more than 24% new weekly infections even though they only account for 16% of the population, according to data by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Health experts say it’s a sign more adults and adolescents need to get vaccinated to avoid bringing the virus home and spreading it to children that aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The virus is an equal opportunity infector. It doesn’t care if you’re young or old,” said Dr. Robert Frenck, professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Vaccine Research at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, who presented the data at a Johns Hopkins University-University of Washington symposium Wednesday called “Covid-19 and Kids: Impacts, Uncertainties and the Role of Vaccines.”
More than 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the US, 18,500 were hospitalized and 336 have died from the disease, according to the AAP. About 4,000 kids have been hospitalized with multisystem inflammatory syndrome children or MIS-C – a rare, but dangerous condition the CDC says is associated with COVID-19.
Although nearly 55% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose as of Friday, health experts say vaccination rates are not uniform across the U.S. leaving room for outbreaks and childhood infections.
There are some places where vaccinations rates are as low as 20%,” Frenck said. “It’s not ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ (Outbreaks) will happen, and unfortunately, people will be surprised and that’s what we’ve been trying to tell people.”
Health experts say it’s especially crucial to increase vaccination rates as the Delta variant continues to spread throughout the U.S. On Wednesday, Texas Children’s Hospital reported several of the country’s first pediatric infections – all occurring in children under 12.
Because it’s the most highly contagious variant to date based on all the data we’ve accumulated so far, we expect to see more rapid transmission of this virus from adults and adolescents to children,” said Dr. James Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief and interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.
In the meantime, scientists are doubling their efforts to finish clinical trials so the Food and Drug Administration can authorize the vaccine for younger children as soon as possible.
Pediatric hospitals are working closely with vaccine developers like Pfizer and Moderna to combine Phase 2 and 3 trials, expediting the process during the summer months to submit data by early fall.
“Early in the next school year, we hope to have emergency use authorization for these COVID vaccines for children under 12 by early to mid-fall,” Versalovic said. “That remains a top priority and has now added urgency with the rapid spread of the Delta variant.”