As COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the country, so are infants, children and adolescents, and the group now shares a greater share of the disease burden than has ever been recorded.
According to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of youth cases rose 22 percent in the two weeks between Oct. 29 and Nov. 12. The week ending Nov. 12 saw the largest single-week spike in the pandemic, with 112,000 new cases.
There are now more than 1 million cases in infants, children and adolescents – collectively “children” – and the group makes up a higher proportion of cases than before. Children now make up 11.5 percent of the total number of cases in the United States. At the end of July, children accounted for 8.8 percent of cases, compared to 7.1 percent at the end of June and 5.2 percent at the beginning of June.
“As a pediatrician who has been practicing medicine for over three decades, I find this number [of cases] shocking and tragic. We haven’t seen a virus flash through our communities in this way since we had vaccines against measles and polio,” AAP president Sally Goza said in a statement.
On the positive side, severe hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are still relatively rare in children compared to older age groups. However, some children develop serious illness and die. To date, more than 6,000 children with COVID-19 have been hospitalized and 133 have died.
Because many children show few or no symptoms, the official number of cases in children is probably an underestimate of the disease burden. The data is also limited by inconsistent data collection and case definitions, the AAP notes. For children with mild to moderate disease, pediatricians are concerned about the potential for long-term physical health effects. And the doctors are also concerned about the mental health effects in all children.
“We know from research on the impact of natural disasters on children’s mental health that prolonged exposure to this type of toxic stress is harmful,” said Dr. goza. “We are deeply concerned about the implications of this for all children, including toddlers who miss important educational opportunities, as well as adolescents who may be at higher risk for anxiety and depression.”
Those likely to suffer most from the disease and pandemic are black and Hispanic children, the AAP notes. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to suffer from infections and serious illnesses, and may be more vulnerable to economic damage and disruptions to educational and social services.
Of the 1,163 cases of childhood multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) — a rare but life-threatening condition associated with COVID-19 and characterized by inflammation of various organs, including the brain, heart and lungs — 75 percent of the cases reported in black and Hispanic or Latino children, according to tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A total of 20 children have died from COVID-19-related MIS-C during the pandemic.
The AAP called on leaders to take immediate action to better protect children.
“We urgently need a new, national strategy to get the pandemic under control, and that should include the implementation of proven public health measures, such as wearing masks and physical distancing,” said Dr. goza. “This pandemic is taking a heavy toll on children and families and communities, as well as physicians and other frontline medical teams. We must work now to restore trust in our public health and scientific agencies, create tax relief for families and pediatricians, and support the systems that support children and families, such as our schools, mental health and nutritional support.”