COVID-19 delta variant is ‘more contagious’ in kids

Sanford Children's sees more children testing positive, hospitalized with variant

Cute little boy putting on a protective face mask while in daycare during phase two of reopening after the COVID-19 outbreak.

The number of kids in the hospital with COVID-19 has increased exponentially around the country.

From the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • There were 750,000 new cases in kids between Aug. 5 and Sept. 2
  • Children now make up more than 26% of new COVID-19 cases
  • Nearly half of COVID-19-positive children don’t have underlying health conditions

Sanford Health communities are not immune to those kind of statistics. That’s according to Joseph Segeleon, M.D., who leads Sanford Children’s as chief medical officer and longtime specialist in the pediatric intensive care unit.

He calls this the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” made worse by a contagious variant hitting children harder than any other variant.

The problem is, with respect to children, a large population is not yet eligible to get the vaccine.

As of now, only one-third of adolescents patients at Sanford are vaccinated.

Why delta is different

“We have this large pool of people that the virus will find,” Dr. Segeleon said. “Because it is increased in contagiousness … our case numbers have gone up considerably — fivefold in the last month.

“What we’re seeing right now that is different, however, is more hospitalizations.”

Chief Physician Jeremy Cauwels, M.D., recently joined Sanford Health News for a Facebook Live Q&A and an update to the rising numbers.

He says delta isn’t more harmful to one individual child than the variants before, but it’s much better at infecting than other variants.

Read: COVID-19 vaccination, treatment options can slow surge

“Even though the odds of going to the hospital are still very low, if you infect many more children, the total number in the hospital increases,” Dr. Cauwels said. “I think that’s the biggest risk point we talk about now.”

With more infected children comes the risk of more long-term effects after the virus, such as “long COVID” or “long hauler syndrome,” which is any cluster of symptoms that hang around longer than six weeks.

For example, COVID-19 patients report a loss of taste or smell, long-term lung disease, lung scarring, cardiac abnormalities, brain fog and others over a long period of time.

“Anyone who is having those effects, which can happen in 5 to 10% of people who have COVID, would absolutely wish them away in a heartbeat.”

He said the vaccine has proven to eliminate the risk of long-term side effects.

For kids who can’t vaccinate or mask

If you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or looking to become pregnant, getting the vaccine ahead of time is the safest way to ensure mom and baby are protected, Dr. Cauwels said.

“That will allow the antibodies that you make to be transferred to your child, which can help provide protection in those first, very critical months of their life.”

Beyond that, wash hands and wear a mask.

“At the time when kids are zero to 5 years old, as much of their risk is mitigated by the people around them. It’s not so much by their behavior.

“Before they’re able to wear a mask, before they’re able to understand social distancing, what their adults do around them is going to be key to understand the differences.”

Vaccine development for kids under 12

If you’re wondering when kids under 12 would be eligible to get the vaccine, there’s been a bit of a plot twist, and we learned why.

Dr. Cauwels said the Food and Drug Administration has requested an increased sample size of kids in the 5-to-12 age group. This means their vaccine authorization may be delayed until November.

“Normally it takes 30,000 people to certify that a vaccine is ready and effective for an age group,” he said.

That includes the 30,000 people over age 65 who were studied, the 30,000 people between 18 and 65 years old and the 30,000 people between 13 to 18 years old who were studied.

The FDA has asked to study an additional 30,000 kids from ages 5 to 12.

“So they’re going to test 60,000 kids in this case to make sure that it is effective and safe. It will be, to my recollection, the most extensively tested vaccine ever released to a specific age group, which I think is really good news.

“It will also help us have very solid data as to how much benefit we can expect in a population of kids.”

Information in this story was accurate when it was posted. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, scientific understanding and guidelines may have changed since the original publication date.

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Posted In Back to School, Children's, Coronavirus, Expert Q&A, Immunizations

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