The majority of Americans have been infected with COVID-19, according to federal researchers.
A study shows that by February, 60 percent of the nation’s population had suffered an infection at some point during the two-year pandemic.
An ever greater share of children, nearly 75 percent, had been infected.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, released Tuesday, reveals the true scale of the omicron-fueled wave that raged across the nation over the winter.
At the start of December, only 30 percent of Americans had contracted the virus. By the end of the omicron wave, that number had doubled to nearly 60 percent.
The infection rate for children was even higher. COVID-19 infections jumped from 45 percent in December to about 75 percent.
That disproportionate infection rate among children can be linked to two things, health experts said: the end of school-mandated masking and a dearth of child vaccinations.
“Without great mitigation measures, (schools) tend to be a place where you get a lot of transmission,” said University of South Florida virologist Michael Teng.
The debate over masking in Florida schools came to an end in December 2021, when eight hold-out school districts dropped their mask requirements for good. Without masks and social distancing, Teng said, school-aged children had little protection against the virus.
U.S. children ages 5-17 were also the last to be approved for vaccination against COVID-19, but months later still have the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Children 4 and under are still not eligible.
“With omicron being so contagious, there’s a huge opportunity for them to catch and spread the virus, especially when they’re unvaccinated,” said Allison Messina, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
She noted that in the U.S., those ages 65 and over have the highest vaccination rates and the fewest infections, while kids 17 and under have the most infections and the lowest rates of getting vaccinated.
The CDC study tracked coronavirus antibodies from the blood donations of more than 200,000 U.S. residents of all ages from September 2021 through February 2022. Antibodies don’t reveal whether an individual is currently infected and contagious, but do indicate that they were infected at some point in the past.
In the two months since the study ended, the number of infected Americans has likely climbed.
Why are child infections so high?
The study’s findings come as federal health officials are set to review the efficacy of booster shorts for healthy children ages 5-11.
Pfizer on Tuesday submitted clinical data to the Food and Drug Administration showing that a low-dose booster shot is safe for children ages 5-11 and could help prevent serious illness as immunity from their original vaccination wanes.
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Booster shots are currently approved only for those ages 12 and up, but Messina focused on another vaccination issue.
“The thing that disappoints me isn’t that kids aren’t getting boosters,” she said, “it’s that kids aren’t even getting their primary series of vaccine.”
Last month, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo recommended against giving the coronavirus vaccine to healthy children. The recommendation faced immediate backlash from health experts, including those cited in Ladapo’s written guidance who said the Surgeon General “cherry-picked” their research to defend his position.
State data shows 23 percent of Florida children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated.
A good sign as infections climb again
The data also reveals that the U.S. is better protected against future variants than once thought.
The 60 percent of Americans that have been infected will have a better chance of avoiding another infection, said Teng, especially those with “hybrid” immunity from an infection plus vaccination.
The kick of immunity is important now that COVID-19 cases have started to tick back up due to the BA.2.12.1 variant. Infections have nearly doubled in the past two weeks, hitting a seven-day average of 3,500 per day.
As cases pick up, hospitalizations are going up very slowly — which Teng said is a good sign.
“That just suggests that it’s not causing as much disease,” he said. “Hopefully our immunity is better now because we paid for it with the omicron wave.”
However, just because hospitalizations aren’t skyrocketing now doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. The hospitalization rate during the omicron wave was also low, but the sheer number of cases overwhelmed hospitals.
“Maybe we won’t have a big peak like last time, but every time the virus mutates I cringe,” Messina said. “Because we don’t know what’s coming next.”
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in the bay area.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More coronavirus coverage
OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.
KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
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