New data on COVID in kids show high rate of recent school cases and hospitalizations

October 04, 2021
Dark hospital room with a teenager in bed and people standing nearby. The patient has COVID.
The room of a COVID-19 patient in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital. Photo by Sarah Pack

The head of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina is calling for parents to pivot when it comes to COVID in kids. “While it was true that, generally speaking, kids were less affected by COVID last year than adults, that’s no longer true. We're seeing many more kids who are severely affected by COVID,” said Allison Eckard, M.D.

She has plenty of statistics to back that up.

  • The number of kids admitted to the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital with COVID-19 in August and September, 74, was by far the highest two-month total of the pandemic, making up 40% of all COVID-19-related admissions since the start of the pandemic.
  • Fourteen of those 74 children were on ventilators to help them breathe.
  • Four were on a last resort form of life support called ECMO, which stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It involves a machine that oxygenates the blood when a person’s lungs aren’t working.
  • In September, the number of kids in the hospital suffering from the severe and often life-threatening COVID complication MIS-C, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, almost doubled the previous monthly high for the pandemic. Cases during this one month equaled nearly 25% of total cases at MUSC Children’s Health since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Charleston County School District, for which Eckard serves as a medical advisor, is another source of eye-opening stats.

  • From the first day of school, Aug. 18, until the end of September, the number of COVID cases reached more than 2,300. That’s 83% of the total for the entire previous school year, which saw about 2,790 cases.
  • Among people considered close contacts of students or staff with COVID and required to quarantine, about 15% ended up testing positive for the virus.

Eckard says she knows what’s driven those COVID infections and hospitalizations in kids. First, of course, is the Delta variant, which is five to eight times more infectious than the original strain. It recently caused the biggest surge of the pandemic, which peaked in early September in the Tri-county area. While cases are coming down, the numbers are still high throughout South Carolina.

“The Delta variant has changed everything, which is now the predominant strain everywhere in the country. But we’re clearly seeing a regional and a statewide difference compared to other places.”

Dr. Allison Eckard 
Dr. Allison Eckard

That difference involves the number of infections per capita. At times, South Carolina has led the nation and has one of the highest rates of new COVID cases in children anywhere in the country. Eckard attributed that to a relatively low vaccination rate, especially among children age 12 to 17 years old, and some reluctance to return to pandemic precautions, such as physical distancing and mask wearing. That combination has significantly affected kids, including children under 12 who aren’t eligible to get vaccinated yet, Eckard said.

And the school year started without mask mandates, due to a ban by the South Carolina Legislature. About a month later, the Charleston County school board announced there would be a mask mandate after all, through Oct. 15, amid an astronomical increase in COVID cases and quarantines.

Eckard hopes that nearly universal masking in the school district will help bring down both the number of COVID cases and the number of students required to quarantine after close contact exposure. She also looks forward to the day when kids under 12 can get vaccinated. “The risks from COVID are far greater than the miniscule risk of a serious side effect associated with the vaccine and that includes children,” she said.

Some families have come forward recently to show just how true that is. Delisha Bellamy’s 10-year-old daughter has been in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital for many weeks with a life-threatening case of COVID. “Some people think that, I guess, just older people are getting it. But actually, it’s attacking the kids more now than it is the older people,” Bellamy said.

And the family of 17-year-old Christian Davila, also hospitalized with severe complications of COVID, urged people to get vaccinated. “I don’t wish this on anybody. I really don’t,” his father said.

Eckard said none of the COVID patients in the children’s hospital was fully vaccinated on arrival. “Many of our sickest children were eligible for vaccination, but their families chose not to vaccinate them. The vaccine is very safe and is our greatest tool to prevent not only COVID cases in children but to keep as many children out of the hospital as possible,” Eckard said.

“And a bonus to being vaccinated is that those children do not have to quarantine from school after close contact if they remain asymptomatic. Seems to me that vaccination is a win-win for children and families.”

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