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As the omicron variant spreads, the number of children hospitalized increases

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's official. The FDA has authorized booster shots for kids aged 12 to 15. This comes amid a significant rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations among children. Overall, the U.S. is averaging between 300- and 400,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day. We'll talk to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about the recent surge in a moment. But first, NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this was in the ether. Now it's official - the FDA authorizing this expansion of boosters. What more can you tell us about this?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the agency has authorized the use of the Pfizer booster in kids 12 to 15 years old, as you just said. They've made a few other changes, too, including the timeline for booster eligibility. Instead of needing to wait six months after the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine, people will be eligible for a booster at five months. And one more thing, Rachel - the FDA will allow for a third dose of vaccine in immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 years old. All of this comes, as you just pointed out, amid this boost in omicron cases, and it's becoming more clear that booster shots can help protect people against serious illness and hospitalizations.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. I mean, we're seeing a record number of cases now, but where are hospitalizations exactly?

AUBREY: You know, hospital admissions are not rising as quickly as cases. They're rising, just not as quickly. Cases are up by about 200%; hospitalizations are up by about 30%. And some areas are being hit particularly hard. If you look at New Jersey, they're seeing record numbers of hospitalizations. In Ohio, the governor has called for the deployment of National Guard members to assist hospitals there. In Houston, the head of Houston Methodist Hospital, Dr. Marc Boom, described to me exactly what he's seeing among the people being admitted to the ICU there amid this surge.

MARC BOOM: There's really two kinds of patients who are getting really sick and going to our ICU. One is the immunocompromised patient, the very people we've been trying to protect and who we know don't mount good antibody responses; the other are unvaccinated. And we're really not seeing healthy, younger people who are vaccinated end up to our ICU.

MARTIN: So by extension, that means the vaccines are working, right?

AUBREY: Absolutely. He says those who are vaccinated do far better, and those who are boosted are even less likely to be admitted. You know, the big challenge right now, Rachel, is that it has never been harder to avoid exposure to this virus. It is everywhere. Omicron is just so contagious. So Dr. Boom says the sheer number of cases just can't be underestimated. His hospital is now seeing about 60% of their COVID tests come back positive.

BOOM: That's a mind-boggling number. So exactly what we were afraid of a couple weeks ago is starting to happen, and that's that although fewer people get admitted, so many people are getting sick. That is now creating very large numbers of admissions. On the flip side of that, then, we are seeing record numbers of staff get sick.

AUBREY: Now, they have nearly every staff member vaccinated because they mandated it early on, so fortunately, he said, there has not been a single staff member to be hospitalized. But these staff members do need to stay home for five days, per the isolation policy, and this can create staffing challenges.

MARTIN: Let's talk about kids, Allison. Are hospitals reporting a rise in pediatric cases right now?

AUBREY: You know, right now cases among kids are going up significantly. I mean, in the week leading up to Christmas, 200,000 kids tested positive. Now there's an uptick in hospitalizations. I spoke to David Kimberlin. He directs the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham about these hospitalizations.

DAVID KIMBERLIN: We have seen about a 50% increase over the last couple of weeks in pediatric hospitalizations around the country. But our overall numbers compared with prior waves, at least so far, are lower. So it's a mixed story right now, but I think it's going to be bad over these next four to six weeks.

AUBREY: And the best way to think about this, Rachel - I really want to underscore this point here - he says even if most kids just get mild illness, with this huge spike in cases you just need a small fraction, you know, who get seriously ill, and that's enough to put stress on hospitals, where resources are clearly stretched so thin. You heard Dr. Kimberlin say there he thinks January is going to be bad, but the hope is then that the surge will begin to recede, similar to what's happening in South Africa.

MARTIN: So schools are supposed to be back in session, Allison, after the holidays. What...

AUBREY: Exactly, except for a snowstorm here in the D.C. area.

MARTIN: Right, yeah. Snowstorm in D.C. is delaying that. But what are schools doing right now in terms of weighing whether or not to close again?

AUBREY: You know, I think there's a real scramble to increase testing, to reinforce masking rules. I know we got a message from our daughter's elementary school explaining how to opt in to a testing program. And Dr. Anthony Fauci said on ABC yesterday that kids who are vaccinated are much more protected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I plead with parents to please seriously consider vaccinating your children, wearing masks in the school setting, doing tests to stay - all of those things put together, it's safe enough to get those kids back to school.

AUBREY: He says the benefits really do outweigh the risks of kids missing out on in-person instruction.

MARTIN: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.