The number of COVID cases in the U.S. has now surpassed 37 million, with the Delta variant currently accounting for more than 98% of newly confirmed cases in the country.
Unlike during the first waves of the coronavirus pandemic, there are significantly more children being hospitalized for COVID-19 infections amid the latest surge.
“That really scares me,” Dr. James Simmons, an L.A.-based hospitalist nurse practitioner, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Kiddos who aren’t eligible for being vaccinated make up about 50 million people in the United States. While the narrative the first time around was kids are a little bit protected from this, we don’t exactly know why they’re not really big spreaders — that’s categorically different with Delta.”
Over 4.4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, with more than 121,000 cases in the week ending Aug. 12, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Cases in children have risen substantially since the beginning of July and now account for 18% of newly confirmed weekly cases, leading to more hospitalizations.
“There’s no doubt there are more children getting infected,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said during a recent press briefing. “The Delta variant is much more highly transmissible than was Alpha. Given that you will see more children likely to get infected — and even though the percentage is small, a certain percentage of children will require hospitalization. So quantitatively, you will see more children in the hospital regarding the severity of illness.”
Delta variant is 'much more transmissible'
The contagiousness of the Delta variant is the key reason why children are getting affected on a higher basis, along with the fact that children under the age of 12 aren’t yet eligible to receive any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.
Pfizer (PFE) is the only vaccine available for children over the age of 12, while both Moderna (MRNA)’s and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ)’s are only for those 18 and up. All three companies are working on getting FDA approval to provide vaccines for the younger populations.
Encouraging vaccinations is a crucial part of mitigating the spread: Health officials reported that unvaccinated individuals account for more than 97% of hospitalization and over 99% of COVID-related deaths. Their decision to remain unvaccinated leaves children and immunocompromised people even more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
According to one study, the viral load for those infected with the Delta variant is 1,000 times more potent than the original strain of the virus. That leads to more transmission.
"I’m really, really scared of kids going back to an environment where they’re not being masked, where the adults are not vaccinated around them," Simmons said. "I think it could cause a continuing of this surge of Delta that we have to last well into the fall if we don’t put some sort of mask mandates.”
Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is especially concerned for students going back to schools in areas of high transmission.
"I think that's going to be a problem," Offit told Yahoo Finance. "We're going to see outbreaks in schools, we're going to see school superintendents struggling with quarantine, ultimately with possibly shutting down schools and going back to virtual learning. Hopefully no one dies, but that sort of seems like where we're heading."
'Now is the time' to get your questions answered
The back-to-school season has sparked concern among both parents and public health professionals about how to best keep children safe in the classrooms.
A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a majority of parents don't want their children's schools to require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 — but 63% did indicate that masks should be required for any unvaccinated students or staff.
"We have school vaccine mandates and have since the 1970s," Offit said. "It's not like it's a novel concept. It's just so weird to me that this has become political, that it's tied up in this bizarre notion of civil liberties as if it's your liberty to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection — and it's not."
Some states have implemented mask mandates in all schools, while other governors have outright banned them. Vaccination rates also vary by state.
"There's no good reason not to get a vaccine, sorry," Offit added. "It works. It's safe. There's no good reason not to get a vaccine other than you don't want to get one."
Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, Iowa, Utah, and Arizona have all prohibited schools from enforcing mask mandates. Yet, several of these states not only have low vaccination rates but are also responsible for an overwhelming number of COVID-related hospitalizations.
“The best way to keep our schools safe — and we know how to do it — is to vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated, vaccinate family members of children who cannot be vaccinated, and then to follow the mitigation strategies in our schools,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a recent press briefing.
Mitigation strategies include masking, testing, social distancing, encouraging hand hygiene, and improving air filtration throughout the schools, along with making sure people stay home from school when they’re feeling sick.
Dr. Angela Myers, division director of infectious diseases for Children’s Mercy Hospital of Kansas City and board member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasized the importance of masking in schools until the virus is better contained for several reasons.
“One — because children under the age of 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine at this time, so none of those children are vaccinated,” Myers told Yahoo Finance. “Also, because this variant of the virus is so much more contagious than previous versions, each infected person is more likely to infect more people than they would have in the past.”
Myers added that "even though the vaccine has been authorized for kids 12 and olders, we just haven’t seen the uptake that we’d like to see in terms of the number of kids who are getting vaccinated. We still have a large portion of even older kids and teenagers that aren’t vaccinated yet. We’ve still got a contagious virus and a large portion of kids in both age groups who are not vaccinated and will be together in close proximity at school.”
So far, 59.6% of those over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated, and 70.2% have received at least one dose.
“I do think that for people who’ve been sitting on the fence about getting their child vaccinated, this is a really good time to talk to your trusted care provider, your pediatrician, or your family medicine doctor to really discuss what your concerns are, what your questions are,” Myers said.
She added that “now is the time” to get those questions answered as the new school year begins.
“Hopefully, you’ll be comforted in the fact that the vaccine is safe and it is effective and you’ll feel good about moving forward with getting your child immunized,” Myers said.
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at [email protected]
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