Vaccinate now, or risk winter pediatric COVID surge

Cloe Poisson ::

Mikaela Coady, a physician assistant with Priority Urgent Care from Ellington, fills a syringe with a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at St. Bernard Church in the Rockville section of Vernon.

A pediatric ICU nurse prepares discharge papers for a child admitted to the ICU after surgery. She asks the parent the question marked in red: “Would you like to have a COVID vaccine before discharge? The mother responds: “Have my child vaccinated against COVID? I can’t justify that – there’s too much we don’t know.”

Actually, there is a lot more that we know.

Nearly 4.2 million (16%) of U.S. children were infected with COVID-19 as of July 29, with 72,000 cases in the past week. Although a vaccine for children aged 12 and older was made available last spring, only 38% of children aged 12-17 have been fully vaccinated – the lowest percentage of any age group allowed to receive the vaccine.

It’s true that pediatric IC admissions for COVID have been relatively rare in the past year, but the stories were profound – a 17-year-old preparing to play collegiate baseball and ending his career due to chronic implications of COVID-related multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a 12-year-old who spends his birthday in hospital with COVID-induced heart inflammation requiring intravenous medication, a new mother unable to peer helplessly through an isolette. For these young people, days and weeks in an ICU bed became a tangible definition of social isolation.

As of last month, more than 4,200 children met the criteria for MIS-C, 99% of whom tested positive for COVID-19. In a study led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, 80% of patients with MIS-C required intensive care and 20% required mechanical ventilation. The takeaway? Kids get COVID and they get sick — some for the long haul.

Even more concerning is the fact that once sporadic admissions have been replaced by winter-level patient volumes of acutely ill infants, children and teens with Delta variant infections and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). During the last week of July, 38,654 new pediatric COVID cases were reported. At the same time, beds are becoming scarce and schools are preparing to reopen their doors. With flu and RSV season upon us, it’s time we recognized that pediatric COVID-19 and its associated long-term health implications are urgent public health crises. It’s time we stopped relying on children to be safe simply because they have a less severe experience with COVID. Rather, we should consider that vaccination is an effective measure to protect children from the worst manifestations of COVID-19.

In children ages 12-17, the CDC estimates that every 1 million second vaccine doses could prevent nearly 8,500 infections and 200 hospitalizations. If vaccination rates among adults and adolescents fall behind, however, the youngest, most vulnerable members of our population will pay the price. The rise in the number of cases and hospitalizations in several states suggests that we are at the forefront of a pediatric COVID spike. Only this time we have to deal with an influx of admissions within a system that is already suffering from burnout of healthcare staff. What will happen if COVID, flu and RSV all increase at once this winter? It’s a burning question and one I don’t want to answer.

The majority of these recent ICU admissions concern children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine. So if you or your child is eligible for a vaccination before the start of the school year, I urge you to do so. In addition to strengthening your own protection and recognizing your contribution to herd immunity, you could be saving the lives of babies, toddlers, and young children who are unable to stand up for themselves.

By getting our youngest children back into school and activities, we can ensure they are no longer victims of a pandemic with an available solution.

Kayla Johnson is a registered nurse from Somers.

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