Over 330 Kids With COVID Now Being Admitted Per Day to Hospitals as Omicron Sweeps U.S.

Though child COVID-19 hospitalizations remain much lower than adult levels, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showed that the number of children hospitalized for the virus increased last week by 58 percent over the previous week.

The CDC said that between December 21 and December 27, an average of 334 children under the age of 17 had to be admitted to hospitals each day. This is the highest peak since September.

During the same December period, about 9,400 people of all ages were hospitalized with the virus per day, meaning that despite the increase in kids' hospitalizations, children still made up less than 4 percent of the total number of people hospitalized.

Pediatricians across the country have attributed this increase to lower vaccination rates among young children, as vaccines have only recently been approved for certain age groups. According to the CDC, about 14 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 and 53 percent of children aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated.

Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Associated Press none of the children staying at his hospital for COVID-19 had been vaccinated against the virus, despite two-thirds of them having conditions like chronic lung disease or obesity, putting them at a higher risk of infection.

"It's just so heartbreaking," Offit said. "It was hard enough last year, but now you know that you have a way to prevent all this."

Chicago, child, COVID-19 vaccine
Between December 21 and 27, child COVID-19 hospitalization rates in the U.S. rose by 58 percent compared to the previous week. Above, 7-year-old Rihanna Chihuaque receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Arturo Velasquez Institute on November 12 in Chicago. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The previous peak over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.

The issue is timing in many cases, said Dr. Albert Ko, professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the Yale School of Public Health. Younger children were not approved for the vaccine until November, and many are only now coming up on their second dose, he said.

The scenes at Offit's Philadelphia hospital were heart-wrenching.

"They're struggling to breathe, coughing, coughing, coughing," Offit said. "A handful were sent to the ICU to be sedated. We put the attachment down their throat that's attached to a ventilator, and the parents are crying."

None of the parents or siblings were vaccinated either, he said.

The next four to six weeks are going to be rough, he said: "This is a virus that thrives in the winter."

Overall, new cases in Americans of all ages have skyrocketed to the highest levels on record: an average of 300,000 per day, or two and a half times the figure just two weeks ago. The highly contagious Omicron variant accounted for 59% of new cases last week, according to the CDC.

Still, there are early indications that the variant causes milder illness than previous versions, and that the combination of the vaccine and the booster seems to protect people from its worst effects.

In California, 80 COVID-19-infected children were admitted to the hospital during the week of December 20 to 26, compared with 50 in the last week of November, health officials said.

Seattle Children's also reported a bump in the number of children admitted over the past week. And while they are less seriously ill than those hospitalized over the summer, Dr. John McGuire cautioned that it is early in the Omicron wave and the full effect will become apparent over the next several weeks.

New York health authorities have also sounded the alarm.

The number of children admitted to the hospital per week in New York City with COVID-19 went from 22 to 109 between December 5 and December 24. Across all of New York state, it went from 70 to 184. Overall, almost 5,000 people in New York were in the hospital with COVID-19.

"A fourfold increase makes everybody jump with concern, but it's a small percentage," Ko said of the New York City figures. "Children have a low risk of being hospitalized, but those who do are unvaccinated."

Dr. Al Sacchetti, chief of emergency services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey, likewise said vaccinated children are handling the Omicron outbreak extremely well.

"It makes a big difference in how these kids tolerate the disease, particularly if the child's got some medical issues," he said.

COVID-19 deaths have proved rare among children over the course of the pandemic. As of last week, 721 in the U.S. had died of the disease, according to data reported to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The overall U.S. death toll is more than 800,000.

Almost 199,000 child COVID-19 cases were reported in the week of December 16 to December 23, the pediatrics group said. That was about 20% of the more than 950,000 total cases reported that week.

While many of these children will recover at home, they may have contact with others who are at much greater risk, said Dr. Jason Terk, a pediatrician in north Texas. He cared for a 10-year-old boy with COVID-19 who managed the disease well, but his father got sick and died, he said.

"The death of a parent is devastating, but the toxic stress for a young person in this situation is difficult to measure," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.