SALT LAKE CITY — The number of Utahns 19 and younger hospitalized due to COVID-19 spiked 5,067% over a half-year observation period, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics this week.
The study, led by University of Minnesota researchers, tracked pediatric COVID-19 hospitalization data across 22 states, including Utah, from May 15, 2020, through Nov. 15, 2020. The number of pediatric hospitalizations over that period rose from 0.3 per 100,000 children at the beginning to 15.5 per 100,000 at the end, which is an increase of 5,067% and the highest rate of any of the 22 states observed.
Meanwhile, the cumulative hospitalization rate of the states more than tripled from 2.0 per 100,000 children to 7.2 per 100,000 by Nov. 15 as all 22 states experienced significant growth. Researchers pointed out that the 22 states were selected because "breakdown of cumulative hospitalizations" were available.
Dr. Andrew Pavia, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Primary Children's Hospital, read the study and said it just puts into data what hospitals in Utah and across the country have seen in recent months. That is, there's an increase in children needing hospitalization as a result of COVID-19.
Pavia also pointed out that it wasn't simply a steady rise but a spike at the tail end of summer. Many of Utah's schools reopened to in-person learning in August and September, which is about the time the state's largest increase in new COVID-19 cases began.
"What is striking is that as we got to August and through December, that hospitalizations in children increased quite dramatically; and they increased faster than they did in adults," Pavia said, referring to data from the study.
The study's authors concluded that while adults are more likely susceptible to worse health outcomes from COVID-19, like hospitalization or death, some children are still vulnerable to serious illness requiring hospitalization.
"Adult, and especially geriatric incidence of COVID-19 continues to dominate the national picture, but pediatric populations may require resources that are not readily available across the country," the researchers wrote.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers pinpointed age as a key risk factor for severe outcomes such as hospitalization or death. It's why the COVID-19 vaccine distribution to all adults will begin with the oldest Utahns first; no COVID-19 vaccine has yet been approved for children.
Statistics show, though, that age isn't the only factor, and that individuals of all ages were susceptible to hospitalizations — even if that outcome was relatively rare.
There have been 227 hospitalizations involving zero to 14-year-olds since March 2020, according to the Utah Department of Health. An additional 836 individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 have also been hospitalized — although it isn't clear how many of those were 19 or younger.
The percentage of hospitalizations per case is 5.1% for children younger than 1 year old, 0.6% for children between the ages of 1 and 14, and 1.1% for individuals 15 to 24. It also equates to 51.28 hospitalizations per 1,000 cases for children under 1 year old, 5.81 per 1,000 cases for children 1 to 14, and 11.15 hospitalizations per 1,000 for individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, according to health department statistics.
The number of deaths among zero to 15-year-olds is listed as less than five total, while five individuals between 15 and 24 have died.
In all, about 2% of Utah's hospitalizations are considered pediatric by the state (children under 15), Pavia said. It's a statistic that's on the rise even if the likelihood for severe outcomes is much lower than adults and elderly individuals.
Pavia also argued the state's pediatric hospitalization data is a bit misleading because it doesn't include all high school-age patients.
"As you get into teenagers, that's where you see the greatest number of COVID infections; and relative to school-age children, teenagers tend to get sicker and they are more likely to be hospitalized," he said. "We're kind of undercounting by leaving out the 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds."
One of the great values of this study is that it's reminding us that the people who told us that 'Kids are OK, don't worry about them, let them have any exposure to risk' were not telling the truth.
–Dr. Andrew Pavia, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Primary Children's Hospital
Much like the researchers at the University of Minnesota, Pavia said the study shows that children can still be at risk for hospitalization from COVID-19.
"If you look at the absolute numbers, it's still important to remember that kids can get very sick," he added. "There have been over 100 children under the age of 15 who have been hospitalized so far. A lot of them have been pretty seriously ill.
"So although it's not nearly the impact it is, say, in our older population, it's not nothing," he added. "One of the great values of this study is that it's reminding us that the people who told us that 'kids are OK; don't worry about them; let them have any exposure to risk' were not telling the truth. Kids are better off than adults, but it still can be a significant illness for them."
Contributing: Jed Boal, KSL TV and Lindsay Aerts, KSL NewsRadio