While the share of children who have been infected with the coronavirus is growing in the United States, kids are far less likely than adults to become severely ill with COVID-19 or die from it. USA TODAY analyzed data on COVID-19 and spoke to pediatric disease specialists across the country to understand the risk to children.
“The good news continues to be that this is not a common problem for kids,” said Dr. Daniel Rauch, chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston. “The bad news is kids are not immune to this.”
No COVID-19 vaccine has yet been authorized for children under 12, but Pfizer and BioNTech announced this week that they have asked federal regulators to authorize their vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
How common is COVID-19 in kids?
In the most recent wave of the virus, driven by the more contagious delta variant and the relaxation of social distancing measures, cases increased across all groups — but more children have been getting sick relative to older adults. This is in large part because more older Americans are vaccinated.
“The kids actually drive a lot of the proportion of cases,” said Dr. Bryan Jarabek, chief medical informatics officer at M Health Fairview in Minnesota. “But most of the hospitalizations and deaths are in older groups, although we cut down a lot in the older than 65 group that’s been vaccinated.”
About 5 million children under 18 have tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic started. Almost 45 million people overall have tested positive across the country.
How many kids are hospitalized with COVID-19?
In August and September, shortly after cases began to rise, hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 increased across the U.S. Weekly pediatric admissions reached a peak of more than three kids per 100,000 the week ending Sept. 5 and have since declined in most states along with adult COVID-19 admissions.
Still, in more than a dozen states, including Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Delaware, and Vermont, pediatric admission rates have increased in the last two weeks.
A confluence of factors has led the coronavirus to infect and hospitalize more Oklahoma children through the summer and in recent weeks, said Dr. Donna Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease physician at OU Health in Oklahoma City.
Pockets of low adult vaccination rates, relaxed social distancing and schools reopening have meant more kids with COVID-19, she said, and more kids ending up in the hospital.
“Definitely over the last eight weeks we’ve seen dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in kids,” Jarabek said. “It started right when we started school.”
At Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, Dr. Craig Shapiro, an attending physician in the division of pediatric infectious diseases, says he’s seeing a similar increase in pediatric hospitalizations from COVID-19. But he hasn’t necessarily seen a more aggressive illness.
“I don’t think we have the data to support that idea just yet,” Shapiro said. “Right now what’s occurring is there’s just more cases. In those areas where more children are being infected, by sheer numbers there are going to be more severe cases.”
Rauch stresses the need to weigh the danger of a coronavirus infection in children with the risks posed by influenza and RSV, two other viral illnesses he sees consistently striking large numbers of children, especially the very young. “RSV year after year has been the single No. 1 cause of pediatric hospitalizations,” he said.
How many kids have died of COVID-19?
Of the 73 million children in the U.S., fewer than 700 have died of COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rauch puts the figure into context using the number of people who can typically fit into a sports venue.
“Think about it in terms of football stadiums,” Rauch said. “In 100,000 kids, one of them is not going to make it with COVID. Everyone else who walked in is going to walk out.”
About 50,000 children under 14 have died of all causes since the start of the pandemic, according to the CDC.
If they’re old enough to be eligible for a shot, kids can decrease their risk of severe illness by getting vaccinated, doctors told USA TODAY. Parents can help protect children under 12 by getting the vaccine themselves.
“I don’t make any predictions with this pandemic,” Shapiro said. “But we do know that the facts are that those that are unvaccinated are much more likely to be infected and have severe disease.”
Kids’ COVID-19 vaccination rates vs. COVID-19 hospitalization rates, by state
To find vaccines available near you, go to Vaccines.gov or text your ZIP code to 438829.
Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine? This Q&A can help you decide.
COVID-19 in kids: Methodology
Weekly pediatric admissions were calculated by totaling each week’s previous day pediatric admissions confirmed positive for COVID-19 reported by hospitals to HHS. Rates were calculated by dividing total weekly admissions by child population sourced from the 2019 American Community Survey. Cases and deaths per 100,000 by age group were sourced directly from the CDC. The child vaccination rate was calculated by subtracting the number of people age 18 or older fully vaccinated from the number of people age 12 or older fully vaccinated, then dividing by the child population.
Lead photo illustration by Veronica Bravo.
Janie Haseman can be reached by email at email@example.com. Aleszu Bajak can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Signal at 646.543.3017.
10:13 am UTC Oct. 8, 2021
10:13 am UTC Oct. 8, 2021