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Omicron Is Driving A Huge Surge In Kids Hospitalized For COVID

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The latest surge in COVID cases across the country is causing pediatric cases to skyrocket, along with an alarming increase in hospitalizations for kids

As the U.S. reaches COVID case numbers higher than any other point during the pandemic, cases and hospitalizations for kids are both reaching levels that are alarming many public health experts. While the highly contagious new omicron variant is likely partially to blame, experts say that’s not the full story — that there are many reasons, including low vaccination rates, that kids are so vulnerable to the coronavirus right now.

As the fast spread of omicron drives the current surge in cases, many states are reporting an increase of about 50 percent in pediatric hospitalizations for COVID in December. New York, one of the current epicenters of the pandemic in the U.S., has reported some of the highest numbers — the state had 68 children hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, which was a fourfold increase from two weeks earlier.

In addition to rising hospitalizations, case numbers for kids are reaching astronomical levels. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that there were 199,000 cases of COVID in kids in the week ending with Dec. 23, which was a 50 percent increase compared to the beginning of December.

Thankfully, experts say there are reasons for hope. Omicron appears to be causing less severe disease in kids than previous variants, many say, pointing to the rise in hospitalizations being caused by a combination of rising infections overall, as well as the delta variant still circulating widely in many parts of the U.S.

“I think the important story to tell here is that severity is way down and the risk for significant severe disease seems to be lower,” said Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Overall, kids are still much less likely to suffer severe disease from COVID than adults, though experts say lagging vaccinations are leaving children more and more vulnerable. Though shots are available for all kids 5 and over (and boosters are available for those 16 and up), children have some of the lowest rates of vaccination against COVID in the country.

Dr. James Schneider, the chief of pediatric critical care at Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New York, said kids hospitalized in the two dozen medical centers he works in all have one thing in common: They’re unvaccinated or they haven’t been fully vaccinated.

“What we’re seeing in our I.C.U. makes it crystal clear that vaccination is the single most important thing you can do to protect your kid from getting sick with this virus,” he said.