COVID-19 and Children- Infection and Vaccines

Contributor: Dr. Elise Herman, KVH Pediatrics

Parents know too well what “pandemic fatigue” is. They are tired of it all- the masking, the distancing, the quarantining, the disruption of life, and the loss of a “normal childhood” for their kids. But this is a critical time in the COVID-19 pandemic as the Omicron variant surges; Omicron is certainly targeting the unvaccinated, and many of those are children.

The number of daily cases of COVID-19 in the US is over 900,000 as of January 7, 2022. 17% of these are children and most concerning is the huge jump in pediatric hospitalizations. There recently has been a 50% increase in COVID hospitalizations for kids under age 5, the biggest increase since the pandemic started. Over 82,000 kids have been hospitalized with COVID thus far, and there is now a new record for hospitalizations of kids under age 18 years- almost 800 daily. Some of these are as young as 2 months old.

Pediatric hospitals are feeling the strain, including Seattle Children’s Hospital, according to staff pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Danielle Zerr. Dr. Zerr noted in a recent New York Times article that the number of young children in Seattle Children’s Hospital with COVID is much higher than with previous Delta surges. Some of these very sick children have risk factors such as asthma or obesity, but many were previously healthy children without underlying problems.

Omicron seems to cause milder disease overall but can cause severe illness and is much more transmissible than the Delta variant. With so many more people getting infected, even if a smaller percentage get very sick, the total number of those who get severely ill will be very large. The unvaccinated are most at risk, and of course this includes kids under 5 years since they are not eligible for the vaccine yet. A parent’s best strategy to protect their child is straightforward: vaccinate if eligible, avoid crowded spaces (especially inside), continue masking and social distancing. Additionally, make sure all the older kids and adults in their family are vaccinated.

Those who are vaccinated can still get COVID, especially with the Omicron variant, but they are less likely to get a severe illness, and less likely to be hospitalized. If kids are fully vaccinated and exposed at school, they do not need to quarantine. Those who are vaccinated are less likely to transmit the virus, helping to keep their family healthy and their school open.

As of December 5, 2021, almost 4.8 million US kids ages 5-11 had received at least one COVID vaccine dose. There have been no cases of heart inflammation (myocarditis) in this age group which was noted to be a very rare side effect of the vaccine in young adult and adolescent males previously. It is important to remember that COVID infection itself is much more likely to cause heart problems in this age group than would the vaccine. We have had enough experience now to know the vaccine is safe and effective.

Can we imagine a time when there is ‘background’ COVID, like influenza, but not huge surges that overwhelm our healthcare systems, shutter schools and businesses, and disrupt our lives? That is the “learning to live with the virus” scenario that may be our future. To get there we need to have many more people vaccinated (including our children) to minimize the rise of new variants. Increased access to testing and better therapies to fight COVID infection will also be important. We all really do have the opportunity to help move us along towards that goal, and towards a better future for our children.

more about the contributor

Dr. Elise Herman

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Dr. Herman is passionate about community health outreach, school programs, and child/family health and wellness. She has more than 31 years of experience as a pediatrician in Ellensburg, Washington, the last 3 with KVH Pediatrics. In 2022 Dr. Herman retired from practice and continues to contribute blog posts and remain a visible advocate for kids in the community.