The Sunshine State leads the nation in another alarming coronavirus statistic: Kids hospitalized with COVID-19.
Florida had 32 pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations per day between July 24 and 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adjusted for population, that’s 0.76 kids hospitalized per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country.
The Florida Department of Health reported 10,785 new COVID-19 infections among children under 12 between July 23 and 29. That’s an average of 1,540 new cases per day.
The surge is worse for children who are eligible for the vaccine — 11,048 new cases among those ages 12 to 19 in the same week.
Last Friday’s state data shows seven deaths among children under 16 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Florida stopped reporting COVID-19 deaths by age group to the CDC on July 17.
Dr. Claudia Espinosa, pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of South Florida, said that she is deeply concerned about cases spiking when kids return to school this month. Hundreds of thousands of kids across the state will soon pack themselves into school buses, classrooms, and cafeterias.
“I’m terrified of what’s going to happen,” she said.
Pediatric hospitalizations are the latest sign of the resurgent pandemic’s hold on Florida. Last week, the state accounted for nearly one out of every four new infections and hospitalizations in the nation, according to the CDC. State data shows Florida averaged more than 15,780 infections a day over the most recent seven-day period.
Tampa Bay pediatric hospitals are seeing those higher admissions themselves. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg diagnosed 113 COVID-19 cases in the first three and a half weeks of July, while the hospital only had 11 infections in the entire month of June, said Dr. Joseph Perno, the hospital’s vice president of medical affairs.
Every week in July set a new weekly record for the most cases the hospital has seen during the pandemic, Perno said.
The age range of infected patients is evenly spread between young children and teenagers. And the vast majority of them are unvaccinated, said Dr. Allison Messina, the hospital’s chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease. Children 11 and under cannot yet get the vaccine.
Pediatric COVID-19 patients in BayCare’s 15 Florida hospitals doubled in July compared to June, after two months of declining case numbers, said hospital system spokesperson Lisa Razler.
The vast majority of infected pediatric patients are hospitalized at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Razler said, one of the six BayCare facilities that paused elective surgeries requiring overnight stays to make more beds available for COVID-19 patients.
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While infected children are at less risk of serious illness then adults, Messina said they can still develop serious long-term complications, Messina said.
Multisystem inflammatory syndrome is an autoimmune disease that targets school-aged children and can occur two to six weeks after a coronavirus infection. Symptoms include fever, rashes, red eye, and diarrhea and vomiting. If left untreated, Messina said, the illness can be fatal or cause permanent heart damage.
Espinosa primarily treats pediatric patients dealing with long-term complications after being infected by COVID-19. She said every seriously-ill patient she has seen was unvaccinated.
Messina said that the highly transmissible delta variant is driving the unprecedented pediatric surge, just as it’s driving the rapid rise in adult cases.
“The only thing that is going to slow this down is more folks getting vaccinated...” she said. “Otherwise, cases are going to continue to rise.”
The state reported Friday that 38 percent of those ages 12 to 19 are vaccinated — the lowest vaccination rate of any age group.
Children ages 2 through 11 will likely become eligible for the vaccine in the fall when Pfizer applies for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, said Dr. Christina Canody, BayCare’s director of pediatric services. She expects the vaccine to become available for children as young as six months by the end of the year.
The best way to keep kids safe when in-person instruction resumes, Espinosa said, is for all students — vaccinated or unvaccinated — to wear masks. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also urge students, teachers, and staff to wear masks while indoors in schools.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week issued an executive order seeking to ban school mask mandates, after the Broward and Gadsden county school systems announced plans to require masks this fall. Tampa Bay school districts say they do not plan to require masks.
DeSantis said in a speech in Cape Coral that he acted to “protect the rights of parents to make this decision about wearing masks for their children.” School board lawyers question whether the governor can do so.
Dr. Nishant Anand, BayCare’s executive vice president and chief medical officer, made his decision. He and his wife talked to their three children about the risks of the delta variant and agreed as a family that masks will be worn in schools.
Masks are particularly important for protecting children who are yet eligible for the vaccine, Anand said.
While Anand’s 13-year-old is vaccinated, his 11 and 8-year-old are still too young for the shot. He said that the family started wearing masks again in early July when he saw the uptick in delta-driven cases, weeks before the CDC updated its mask guidelines and once again recommended masking while indoors.
“I would hate to be vaccinated and be fine myself but then have exposed my children to the virus,” Anand said.
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