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Hospitalizations among children grow amid omicron surge in Louisiana

 Our Lady Of The Lake Regional Medical Center
Our Lady Of The Lake Regional Medical Center

Louisiana hospitals are reporting a sharp spike in children made seriously ill by COVID-19 as the omicron surge continues to gather steam, but officials said it’s too soon to tell how severe the surge will end up being for kids.

Officials, however, point to one single commonality among children hospitalized with COVID-19: they’re unvaccinated.

Children’s Hospital New Orleans has seen a seven-fold increase in patients in just two weeks. A total of 21 children were hospitalized as of Tuesday, compared to just three a few weeks ago, according to Dr. Mark Kline, the hospital’s physician-in-chief. Three of those children were in the intensive care unit.

Kline said seven were under the age of 5, and all were unvaccinated.

At Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital in Baton Rouge, eight children were admitted to the hospital overnight for COVID-19 on Saturday into Sunday morning. That’s the greatest number of children the hospital has admitted at one time since the beginning of the pandemic.

The rise in hospitalizations is being driven by an unprecedented amount of COVID-19 in the community. There were 10,403 cases reported Wednesday, among the highest daily cases reported to the state, and 1,287 people hospitalized with COVID, up from around 200 through most of the fall and early December. The percentage of children testing positive at Children’s Hospital New Orleans is now nearly 28% — a figure that has jumped from a little over 5% in two weeks, Kline said.

More children under the age of 5 are getting COVID than at any point during the pandemic, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health. Its dashboard shows 2,130 children ages 0 to 4 tested positive over Christmas week, compared to the previous high of 1,863 recorded in mid-August during the delta variant surge.

“We're already seeing our max number of kids who have ever been admitted to the children's hospital during one surge, and we're not done with this surge yet,” O’Neal said. “Cases continue to mount. We could have our sickest pediatric population of the pandemic so far, and that is not mild.”

It’s also a swift rise in admissions among children this early in the omicron surge; in past surges, childhood admissions lagged behind adult admissions, O’Neal said.

Nine children were hospitalized at Our Lady of the Lake on Wednesday, and on any given day in the omicron surge, about half have been under the age of 5 years old, meaning kids too young to be vaccinated, O’Neal said.

“The only way to protect those children is to surround them by vaccinated individuals who are less likely to get COVID,” she said.

Vaccination rates remain extremely low among children ages 5 to 11 in Louisiana: Just 8% had received at least one dose as of Dec. 29, compared to the national average of 23%. For children aged 12 to 17, that rises to 43%, still below the national average of 62%.

The rising cases and hospitalizations among kids mirror the delta surge, when hospitals began to report alarming increases in hospitalizations among children for COVID-19.

But in contrast to that surge, some early indicators could show omicron might cause less severe illness in children, Kline said. Kids admitted to Children’s Hospital New Orleans seem to be suffering less from pneumonia, though many have upper airway congestion or low blood oxygen.

“So far, at least, knock on the wood, not many of them have been critically ill,” Kline said.

But he added that in previous surges, it could take days or weeks for a COVID patient to develop a series of complications that lands them in the intensive care unit.

“It's early and it's evolving,” he said. “But for the time being at least, intensive care doctors and infectious disease doctors that I’ve been canvassing at the hospital, they’ve been telling me that this doesn’t feel as severe as delta so far.”

Some children under the age of 5 who have been hospitalized at Our Lady of the Lake were otherwise healthy, and children 5 years and older tended to have asthma or a previous respiratory infection, O’Neal said.

In addition to omicron’s impact on kids who do get sick, the other factor that will determine the impact of omicron on children is just how long the surge lasts. Kline said he’s seen models predicting the surge will peak in late January, but he considers that little more than an educated guess.

“I think it's probably going to get worse for at least another few weeks,” Kline said.

In addition to urging people to get vaccinated, O’Neal stressed the need for mitigation measures, especially social distancing and masking — tools that can slow the spread in the short term, compared to the longer-term protection provided by vaccines.

Copyright 2022 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Rosemary Westwood is the public reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.