While some tire of COVID-19, cases — and deaths — in children rise

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | JANUARY 26, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 8, 2021, Jaide Massin, center, holds her daughter Gavrielle Massin, 6, as she receives a COVID-19 vaccination at Englewood Health in Englewood, NJ.

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While COVID-19 cases may be on the decline overall, experts said the latest virulent variant is capitalizing on the limited vaccine immunity among young people and likely contributed to the death of four children in New Jersey — three of them infants — since Christmas alone.

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli announced the latest child fatalities — one-fourth of all COVID-19-related deaths among minors — at the government’s weekly pandemic briefing Monday and encouraged parents to get eligible children vaccinated and take other precautions to reduce the risk of infection. Immunization can help guard against other COVID-19-related conditions, like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, which also appears to be on the rise, experts note.

“The highly transmissible omicron variant has resulted in a greater number of cases, so more children are going to end up getting sick,” said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, who heads New Jersey’s communicable disease service. A typical flu season claims the lives of two or three children, he explained at Monday’s briefing. “We’re seeing roughly three times that from omicron. In the last two weeks to have that large number of children die, that’s much worse than we’ve ever seen in a flu season since we’ve been keeping record.”

Lifshitz stressed the need for those age five and over to get immunized to protect those who aren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

The shots are now available for kids ages five and up and boosters are recommended for those 12 and over, or for younger immunocompromised kids.

“These young children unfortunately can’t be vaccinated. It really is important that those people around them who can be vaccinated get vaccinated,” Lifshitz said. “Yes, the great silver lining of this pandemic has always been that the kids have done ‘generally well,’ but … it’s not ‘always well’ and we still do need to protect them.”

Recent trend

The pattern was clear nationwide. While children comprised about 3% of the country’s COVID-19 infections at the end of March 2020, pediatric diagnoses accounted for more than 17% by last Christmas and made up one in four cases diagnosed each day by last week. according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. One-fifth of all pediatric cases recorded since the pandemic’s start were identified in the past two weeks, the academy noted.

“People are tired of the pandemic. They’re tired of wearing their mask. They’re tired of not doing stuff,” said Dr. Jeanne Craft, a pediatric critical care specialist and president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “And people are being casual because they believe kids get less sick.”

Early reports that omicron was less dangerous than previous coronavirus variants led “people to start taking risks and cutting back things that we know are healthful,” Craft added. “What they forget is that a small percentage of a very large number is still a lot of kids. That’s part of why we’re seeing the spike we do.”

Rising infections among children are also leading to more pediatric hospitalizations nationwide and in New Jersey. While children still account for a small slice of the acute care admissions here, the numbers are ticking up. More than 2,200 youngsters with COVID-19 are now in acute care, up from 1,600 in early November and 1,500 in mid-August, state data show.

Overall, the death rate from COVID-19 was highest early in the pandemic when doctors had few treatments and vaccines were unavailable. In August 2020, children made up less than 1% of the nation’s related fatalities and New Jersey had lost just two youngsters, both under age five. By the end of last summer, seven children had died here, and an eighth passed away in the fall. Now the total stands at 12 coronavirus-related fatalities involving minors.

Persichilli: ‘We must remain vigilant’

Given this pediatric spike, Persichilli said parents need to continue to take precautions. These include vaccinating eligible children, washing hands and avoiding crowded places, she said.

“I know people are weary of repeated pandemic messages and, yes, there is good news that cases and hospitalizations likely peaked two weeks ago and continue to decline, but the number of critically ill patients in our hospitals remains high,” Persichilli said, in addition to the new pediatric deaths. “We must remain vigilant because as this pandemic has taught us, the virus continues to test our health care system and can cause severe consequences among children.”

Persichilli lamented the “unacceptably low” vaccination rates among young people in New Jersey. Just over one-third of children ages 5-11 have received a single shot — two shots are generally needed, plus a booster, for full protection against omicron — along with 65% of those in the 12-15 age group and nearly 77% of 16- and 17-year-olds, according to state health officials. About 12% of kids ages 12-15 have received booster shots, along with one in four 16- and 17-year-olds, they said.

“We must do better. We know the rates of infection and hospitalization for those with boosters is more than three times lower than those who have only received their first two doses,” Persichilli said. In all, some 6.6 million New Jerseyans have been fully vaccinated and 2.7 million have had a booster shot, state data shows.

Craft, of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said parents should know the COVID-19 vaccines are extremely safe for children and adults. Children are at greater risk of myocarditis — inflammation of the heart tissue, which was reported as a side-effect of vaccines in a small percentage of teen boys — from a COVID-19 infection then from the immunization, she explained.

Debilitating after-effects

Craft said vaccines also help protect against MIS-C, a complex condition that can emerge in the weeks or months after a COVID-19 diagnosis. The condition is on the rise, Persichilli noted, with six new cases reported to the state on Friday alone, a daily record. In all, she said 166 youngsters have now been found with MIS-C since March 2020 — 22% more than in early November — and six remain hospitalized. Given the lag time in development of the syndrome, Craft said more cases are likely.

Vaccination can also reduce children’s chances for long-haul COVID-19, Craft said. Just a small percentage of patients are impacted by lasting symptoms, but these can be debilitating. Craft said kids have reported headaches, fatigue and trouble concentrating weeks or months after they were sick, and some are unable to return to school as a result. “We’re going to see this for a while too after this surge. And that’s a concern,” she said.

Even if children get COVID-19 they should be immunized after they are no longer contagious, Craft said. “You don’t have to wait. When isolation ends, go ahead and get your child vaccinated,” she said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-26 03:15:15 -0800