Omicron Is Not More Severe for Children, Despite Rising Hospitalizations

The latest coronaviruses surge sweeping the United States has caused a worrisome rise in hospitalizations among children, not to mention heightened anxiety among parents nationwide.

In December, several states reported increases in admissions for Covid-19. The number of children hospitalized in New York City last week was four times greater than two weeks earlier.

Doctors and researchers said they were not seeing evidence that Omicron was more threatening to children, even as experts expressed concern about a marked jump in hospitalizations.

Preliminary data shows that Omicron appears to be causing milder illness in children compared to the Delta variant.

The severity of the disease seems to be lower, and that is the important story to tell, according to Dr. David Rubin, a researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

He and other experts said that the rise in admissions is due to the number of children who are getting Delta and Omicron infections, as well as low vaccine rates among children over age 5.

Younger children don't yet qualify for vaccinations, and only those over the age of 16 are eligible for booster shots, which offer the most effective shield against infections and hospitalization.

Children are less protected from the virus than adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that there were 199,000 cases of children in the week ending December 23, a 50 percent increase over the previous week.

According to the academy, one in 10 American children have tested positive for the H1N1 virus.

Children who are infectious are less likely to become ill than adults. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children hospitalized with the coronaviruses has risen from 800 at the end of November to 1,200 last week. Some of the children arrived at the hospital with other medical issues.

The numbers are well below the peaks reached last September and experts fear a wave of hospitalizations in the coming weeks.

The chief of staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital said they were bracing for a wave of impact.

In interviews, hospital leaders and critical care doctors said that most of the children hospitalized with Covid were unvaccinated or undervaccinated.

The I.C.U. at Cohen's Children's makes it clear that vaccinations are the most important thing you can do to protect your child from getting sick with this virus.

In the last few days, Dr. Schneider said, five to eight children with Covid were in the intensive care unit.

It's not clear if the Omicron variant is responsible for rising hospitalizations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered its estimates for Omicron's prevalence to 59 percent from 73 percent.

Omicron is more prevalent in the Northeast according to recent data. The variant is responsible for more than 80% of new cases in Connecticut. New York has a figure of 90 percent.

Alarming hospitalization figures can be misleading because they sometimes include all children who have tested positive for the coronaviruses upon admission.

Some hospitals have reported positive rates for children. The majority of them were not serious and were brought to the hospital with other health problems.

In southwest Pennsylvania, where Omicron dominates, the proportion of admissions requiring intensive care services has dropped by half since early fall, according to Dr. Rubin's analysis of the real-time data he had been analyzing.

The rate of Covid admissions was still below the peak seen with the seasonal flu.

He said that the recent increase was most likely tied to delays in seeking medical care for children as infections soared again, combined with the spread of wintertime viruses that can complicate the health of medically fragile children and lead to hospitalization.

Dr. Rubin said that they have to be careful to avoid sending the message that Omicron poses an unusual risk to kids.

790 Americans under the age of 18 have died from the coronaviruses since it began, and medical experts caution that children are at low risk for becoming seriously ill.

Despite guarded optimism, experts acknowledge that it is still too early to know if the Omicron variant will be less dangerous to children than its predecessors.

Dr. Rick Malley, a doctor at Boston Children's Hospital, said that there were many reasons for the hospital not to admit more Covid-19 patients.

He was waiting for more information on the length of hospitalizations and whether young patients need intubation or oxygen. It is premature to predict what will happen with Omicron, because the virus has surprised us before.

Omicron can spread among human hosts even those who have been fully vaccined. At Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, nearly a quarter of all children admitted in recent days have been testing positive, up from 5 percent during the height of the Delta surge last summer. The hospital's chief pathologist says that Omicron accounts for more than 90 percent of infections.

The number of children who need to be hospitalized for Covid has not gone up in recent days, despite the crush of infections.

Although he was weary from having weathered three previous waves, Dr. Versalovic was somewhat hopeful that the treatment of seriously ill patients and an increase in vaccinations would protect children from dire outcomes.

I am worried but I am also optimistic that we will be able to blunt the impact of Omicron.