As schools return for in-person learning and the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread its reach, Valley health experts are increasingly concerned about the effect COVID-19 will have on children, many of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccine.
Locally, the Deer Valley Unified School District has recorded more than 150 positive COVID-19 cases and the Peoria Unified School District has seen 120 cases since school started roughly two weeks ago.
Across the Valley, thousands of students are in quarantine because of exposure to the virus as mandated by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health as of Monday. Several school district classes across the Valley have had to transition to virtual learning once again as outbreaks continue.
Now, young children are increasingly being hospitalized or seeking emergency care for the coronavirus as the contagious Delta variant takes hold.
While Phoenix Children’s Hospital doesn’t release patient data for confidentiality reasons, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Ritchey said PCH is seeing a significant rise in the number of children seeking care at its facilities for the virus.
“This is in line with state and national trends,” he said. “We are seeing more previously healthy, unvaccinated kids with COVID-19.”
Ritchey said PCH saw its lowest number of COVID patients this past May, but there has been a “gradual and steady” rise in cases since then, many of which have required a hospital admission.
“This month, we are seeing a more than 50% increase in admissions compared to what we saw in May of this year,” he continued.
Ritchey said there are many things parents can do to protect their children as school returns in-person and the delta variant continues to spread throughout the community.
“To protect your child from COVID-19, it’s essential for them to get vaccinated as soon as it’s made available to them,” he said. “Ensuring herd immunity is a key factor in putting the pandemic behind us. In addition, we encourage everyone to follow proper hand-washing techniques, follow CDC mask guidance and stay home when they’re sick.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the virus is targeting the unvaccinated, many of whom are children not yet eligible for the vaccine. So far only the Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine is approved only for those age 12 and up. All other vaccines are approved for people age 18 and older.
As of Aug. 11, the CDC reported that 10.7 million U.S. children under the age 18 have received at least one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Around 8 million in the age group have been fully vaccinated. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 41% of children ages 12 to 17 in Arizona have received at least one dose and 30% are fully vaccinated.
But hospitalizations are on the rise statewide. As of Monday, approximately 2,451 people under the age of 20 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 out of 69,113 hospitalizations reported in Arizona. Thus far, just 35 Arizonans under the age of 20 have died from the virus.
Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, the state’s largest health care system, said during an Aug. 10 press conference that ICU admissions at Banner hospitals are nearly at the same level they were during Arizona’s peak in summer 2020.
Bessel said there were approximately 71 COVID-positive pediatric patients admitted to Banner hospitals in July — double the number admitted in June. While the concern for ventilator use and severe illness is low for the age group overall, Dr. Bessel said the situation is worrisome to health care providers.
“ICU admissions and ventilator usage are low for this age group and most of our COVID-positive pediatric patients only require progressive care rather than intensive care,” she said. “This does not mean that the virus cannot have a serious impact on children. We are seeing it already in other states like Louisiana, Florida and Texas where pediatric volumes have sharply risen due to COVID and an unseasonable spike in respiratory illnesses among children.”
Bessel said the situation in other states could be a near future predictor for Arizona, where pediatric ventilator use has increased dramatically. She echoed Ritchey’s encouragement for parents to continue mitigation efforts at home and for their children in school.
“I want to stress that there are several steps that we can all take to keep kids safe in school,” she said. “First, get vaccinated, and vaccinate your children if they are 12 years of age or older. The more of us who get vaccinated, the more we protect those who are too young to get vaccinated. If your child will participate in in-person learning this year, have them mask up in school. And finally, do not send your children to school if they are sick.”