More kids in America are testing positive for the coronavirus as the nation hits records in cases and hospitalizations. The most recent wave of the virus is driven in large part by the omicron variant, which research suggests causes less severe disease but is more transmissible. Even with the new variant, kids are still far less likely than adults to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.
“The omicron variant continues to be a more mild disease in children than adults,” said David Buchholz, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center.
Vaccination lowers risk of severe illness even further, and kids age 5 and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Children 12 and up are eligible for a booster shot if it’s been at least five months since their second dose.
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Data: How omicron affects COVID-19 cases in kids
Children are testing positive for COVID-19 at higher rates than senior citizens – the most vaccinated age group – but lower than most other adults.
"Fewer kids are optimally immunized than any other age group, and of course, children under 5 cannot be protected through vaccination," said Jason Salemi, an epidemiology professor at the University of South Florida.
Data: How many kids are hospitalized with COVID-19?
There are more kids being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 than ever before.
“Although omicron has been found to cause milder disease, it's still infecting so many people, including children, that those kids with chronic or comorbid conditions are bound to get infected,” said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, a family physician and the Wilson County health officer in Fredonia, Kansas. “Then they are the ones who end up in the hospitals because of COVID or because COVID triggered them to have an exacerbation of their chronic condition.”
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which examined hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 last fall, determined that two-thirds of patients had an underlying condition. Hospitals report that a similar proportion of children admitted during the omicron wave have underlying conditions.
Buchholz, the Columbia pediatrics professor, said so far this surge seems to cause less severe illness than that of the delta variant. "The kids getting hospitalized are less sick and it's really for croup-like symptoms as opposed to pneumonia."
Data: How many kids have died of COVID-19?
Out of the more than 840,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the USA, about 1,000 were children. Death is not a common outcome for kids who contract COVID-19. Children with underlying conditions are at greater risk.
How to keep kids in school safe from COVID-19
"We expect cases to continue rising in many parts of the U.S. for the next one to three weeks," said Salemi, the USF epidemiology professor. "We’re just coming out of holiday gatherings, and kids are returning to school, where they absolutely need to be." Given the "astonishing number of new infections" in children each day, Salemi expects to see more children being hospitalized for COVID-19 in the coming weeks.
Masks, social distancing and vaccination are some of the most reliable ways to protect kids from COVID-19, experts say. Large-scale testing at schools is another way to minimize the impact of outbreaks.
A USA TODAY analysis in November found that the beginning of school was followed by faster COVID-19 growth in kids versus adults in most states, but the school effect tended to be more pronounced in places that banned schools from enforcing mask mandates or gave districts the ability to choose.
Looking for kids' masks? Here's where to find the best ones
Photo illustration by Veronica Bravo.
Jennifer Portman, Erin Richards, and Chrissie Thompson contributed to this report.