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SALT LAKE CITY — Children's hospitals are full, the delta variant is twice as transmissible as the original novel coronavirus strain, Utah is already at 250% more COVID-19 cases in children than this time last year, a vaccine for kids under 12 is not ready — and school hasn't even started yet, said a pediatric infectious disease doctor.
"Numbers we are seeing now are just before things could get bad," said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital.
Nationally, there have been 94,000 new diagnoses of COVID-19 in children with the delta variant. This is the greatest number of children with COVID-19 than any point during the pandemic, he continued.
Children's hospitals around the country are being hit, and places with low vaccination rates are seeing record numbers of children in hospitals and ICUs. In Utah, there has been a large increase in children being diagnosed with COVID-19, though "we aren't overrun," Pavia said.
However, Primary Children's is at capacity because there is a pediatric bed shortage by 20% from flood damage. There has also been an upsurge in RSV admission and injuries from trauma doing summertime activities.
"We are essentially at 100%. We're stressed without a major surge in COVID," the doctor continued.
And with school about to begin and no universal mask mandates, he believes it will just get worse, with the brunt of it falling on already burned-out pediatric ICU doctors and nurses.
What do these stretched-out, stressed-out pediatric health care workers want the public to know during this upsurge and the return to school?
Dispelling myths about kids and COVID-19
Myth: Kids aren't affected by COVID-19
Looking at the data even before the delta variant became prevalent, children do get sick with COVID-19, Pavia said. In fact, he continued, "the impact we saw in children last year was with a very different virus and strict universal mask use. It was probably an absolute minimum."
Children tend to have less severe symptoms than adults do with the original strain, but over 700 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah. And death and hospitalization are not the only ways COVID-19 can affect children.
"I think it's a crude outcome measure to say that death or mortality is the only poor outcome," Dr. Erin Avondet, pediatrician and member of the executive board of the Utah chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told KSL.com. "There's also disability, medical trauma, the impact on families, and long COVID to consider."
One outcome in particular in children is multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C: a serious, sometimes deadly illness in which children's body parts can be inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs. There is no known cause, but many children who get it have also had COVID-19.
Around 100 children have been hospitalized in Primary Children's Hospital with MIS-C, said Dr. Neal Davis, pediatrician and the medical director over pediatric community-based care at Intermountain Healthcare.
Children with long COVID might be disabled for life, Avondet said. The treatment for hospitalized children can rack up medical bills for families. When children are sick, parents need to stay home with them, impacting the rest of family life. Quarantining can impact social development and mental health. There are many ways in which kids are affected by COVID-19 other than traditional infection.
Myth: Kids are only affected by the delta variant
Children were affected by the original strain of the virus as well as the delta variant, but we are seeing an increasing number of cases among children because of the transmissibility of the variant, Pavia said.
Myth: COVID-19 is no worse than the flu for kids
COVID-19, especially the delta variant, is much more contagious than the flu. Pavia said there have been over 1,200 hospital admissions nationwide for pediatric patients, which is more children admitted for COVID-19 than for influenza for the four years prior combined.
The current delta variant is more than five times more contagious than the flu, and it has caused more than twice the deaths of the worst year with the flu, he stated.
Myth: COVID-19 isn't as severe in children
With multi-system inflammatory syndrome, "children can become extremely ill and often need medication to keep their blood pressure up. They stay in the hospital for a long time. They can have clots and complications," Avondet said.
Long COVID-19 can cause prolonged brain fog, fevers and fatigue. "In short, it's a false narrative to say that kids do well with COVID," she said.
Myth: COVID-19 only affects teenagers
The delta variant has led to an increase in infections among children ages 5 to 12, Pavia explained. Children under 12 are getting COVID-19, and they are and as of yet unable to receive the vaccine.
The best thing parents can do to protect kids is to make sure everyone around them is vaccinated, have kids wash their hands regularly, social distance and wear masks even when it's optional in schools, Davis said.
Myth: Masks hurt kids
"I'm afraid that's a myth," Pavia said. Masks can be hot and annoying, but the AAP has carefully reviewed science and has found that there are no major risks to children, he added.
Myth: Masks don't work
"Kids can't be safe without masking. What we do know is that masks work best if everyone wears them. They don't work well for the person wearing a mask if people around them are shedding (by not wearing a mask)," Pavia said.
He explained that using better masks works better, but "no masks can provide 100% protection from a large amount of virus," and fit is crucial.
Myth: Doctors don't care, are just trying to make a profit
Pavia ended the press conference by getting a little choked up and saying, "I usually try to keep emotions out of these briefings.
"I feel very strongly that we are about to put our children at great risk," he continued. "This is really very, very important to everyone who cares about children."
He stated that he hoped that politicians and parents would do the right thing by masking their children and keeping them safe, as well as trusting scientific experts and following their lead.