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Children may be less likely than adults to be hospitalized with COVID-19, but a recent study found those who are still unvaccinated are suffering the worst consequences of the disease compared with their vaccinated peers.
Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at hospitalizations in 14 states among children aged 5 to 11 throughout the pandemic.
They found COVID-19-related hospitalization rates were about twice as high among unvaccinated children as those who were vaccinated during the omicron wave from December to February, according to the report published last week in the agency’s Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for kids 5 to 11 in November, but about two-thirds of the eligible population – approximately 18 million children – have yet to receive their first dose.
“COVID-19 is still an issue for kids,” said Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists. “The assumptions that we had early on that children would not be severely affected by the virus need to be reconsidered with this new data.”
The CDC report found 87% of the nearly 400 children hospitalized during the study period were unvaccinated, 30% had no underlying medical conditions, and 19% were admitted to the intensive care unit. Children with diabetes and obesity were also more likely to experience severe COVID-19.
Researchers also found stark health disparities in the data. Non-Hispanic Black children represented approximately one-third of COVID-19-associated hospitalizations in this young age group, followed by white children at 31% and Hispanic children at 19%.
It’s disconcerting to see that Black and Latino children were among the higher group hospitalized because these children also have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, said Dr. Ruth Kanthula, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at MedStar Health.
“The two are connected,” she said. “As pediatricians, we need to sit down and think about how we can target these populations.”
Previous research has shown the omicron variant is less likely to cause severe COVID-19 in healthy people than other variants. But the CDC study found more children were hospitalized and admitted into the ICU during the omicron wave compared to the delta wave.
Study authors say this is likely because the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant and caused more infections.
“Vaccination is a very important and safe way to address the risk of COVID-19, but I know that parents have concerns about it,” said Dr. Andrea Berry, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Health experts say one of the main reasons parents haven’t vaccinated their children is because they don’t feel they need it. The perceived risk of the vaccine is greater than the risk of the disease, said Karen Ernst, program director of Voices for Vaccines, a family-led organization that provides parents with information on vaccines for their children.
“People are making their own risk assessment about the vaccines and COVID based on what they see personally or what other people around them think or believe,” she said. “But people are really terrible at assessing their own personal risk – we’re all bad at it – especially when it comes to vaccination.”
Although the CDC study identified only about 400 hospitalizations in 14 states, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates up to 1.5% of all child COVID-19 cases result in hospitalization in states with available data.
On the flip side, a CDC study published in March shows the vaccine is safe in children 5 to 11, reporting no serious adverse events and only mild side effects such as fatigue, headache and fever after 8 million doses were administered.
It’s also effective. Another study from the agency found the vaccine was 31% effective in children 5 to 11 against infection from the omicron variant and 74% against hospitalizations.
Health experts also remind parents that the sooner they can get their child vaccinated, the sooner they can get them boosted if government officials make it available. A new study from Pfizer and German partner BioNTech that looked at blood samples from 30 children who received a third shot showed a 36-fold increase in antibodies against the omicron variant.
“The risk of COVID is still significant,” Berry said. “And so far, the risk of the vaccine is tiny.”