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Fueled by Delta variant surge, child COVID hospitalizations soar

The Delta variant is fueling a surge in COVID cases that’s sending more children to the hospital.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — More children are being hospitalized from COVID-19 as a percentage of total hospitalizations than any other time in the pandemic, according to data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

It’s still a small number: kids make up 2.3% of hospitalizations, up from 0.8% in May 2020. But growing numbers reflect growing risk for children as they prepare to head back to school.

Children now make up 15% of all COVID cases in Pennsylvania, according to data from the Department of Health, and hospitals are bracing for even more pediatric patients as schools reopen.

“Schools are a pretty good set up for transmission: a bunch of kids close together,” Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC, said. 

The Delta variant is proving to be especially contagious. An internal CDC document published by The Washington Post lists the R0 (pronounced R-naught) values of common infectious diseases. R0 refers to the average number of people expected to become infected from a single infected person.

According to the document, someone infected with the flu spreads it, on average, to one to two other people. Someone infected with the original COVID variant spread it, on average, to two to three other people. Someone infected with the Delta variant spreads it, on average, to five to nine other people. That makes the Delta variant about as contagious as chickenpox and more contagious than the common cold, smallpox, and Ebola.

Children are less at risk than adults of hospitalization or death from COVID-19—even the Delta variant—but can spread it to more at-risk adults.

“A lot of kids together in school, they get it in school, they bring it home to their parents or in the worst case, their grandparents,” Goldman said.

Public health experts say an effective preventative measure is vaccinating everyone 12 and older, especially as those 11 and younger are still ineligible and could benefit from herd immunity.

“This is the best barrier to help slow down and prevent any more of the transmission of COVID,” Dr. Stephanie Lee, pediatrician and preventative medicine specialist at Penn State Health said. 

Heading into the new school year, the Pennsylvania State Education Association is urging all school districts to require universal masking for students and staff.

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