By Sarah Komar and Mary Hennigan
Daily new cases of COVID-19 in children age 17 and younger have risen sharply in the two months since the delta variant became the dominant strain in Arkansas and across the U.S.
The two-months-long surge in pediatric cases far outpaces the second most significant spike in such cases, which accompanied an overall wave of infections last winter.
At the peak of that outbreak, on Jan. 7, the Arkansas Department of Health reported 616 new cases in Arkansans under age 17 and younger. The cases declined to a small and steady stream until June 30 and then shot up over the summer. By Aug. 27, pediatric cases reached an all-time high of 1,022, up 813% from June 30. There have been over 28,000 additional pediatric infections in Arkansas in the months since
The surge began to hit Arkansas Children’s Hospital in early July, said Dr. Jessica Snowden, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the Arkansas Children’s and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Arkansas Children’s Hospital has had an average of 15-30 children hospitalized on any given day since July, many of them in the ICU on ventilators, she said.
“I think no family ever expects to be there,” Snowden said. “Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, there was this sense that children were somehow safe from this. And that’s no longer true with the COVID delta variant. It is very, very contagious to kids.”
A review of hospital data bears that out. Arkansans aged 11 to 17 reported the highest percentage increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations, up 43% to a total of 317 from Aug. 7 to Sept. 11, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The health department began releasing details of hospitalizations by age in early August.
The only age group younger, ages 10 and below, saw hospitalizations increase in the same period by 35% to 417 overall. As of Sept. 15, there were three deaths in the age 17 and younger category.
John Colbert, superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools, said the delta outbreak has presented an unprecedented challenge to schools.
“It’s really affecting kids. Last year, it did not,” Colbert said. “So therefore, it’s a little stressful and also harder to try to deal with this, and we are trying to find ways to mitigate this situation so that the kids will stay safe and healthy, as well as the teachers. So therefore it’s a double whammy.”
Between Aug. 16, the beginning of the school year, and Sept. 10, the school district recorded 263 cases of COVID-19 in students and staff members, according to FPS data. The year before, between Aug. 27 and Sept. 30, that total was 54. To help slow spread of the virus, FPS’s school board instituted a universal mask mandate prior to the start of the school year, and has hosted four in-school vaccination clinics for staff and students over 12, Colbert said. Two more are upcoming.
Almost all of the children admitted to Arkansas Children’s Hospital during the delta outbreak have been unvaccinated, Snowden said. Some have been too young to get the vaccine, but most have not been vaccinated despite being 12 or older and eligible, Snowden said. Many additional patients have been treated in or admitted to the hospital with post-COVID illnesses like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), and acute COVID pneumonia.
“Everybody who can get vaccinated should get vaccinated, and everybody, whether they’re vaccinated or not, should be wearing a mask any time they’re with other people,” Snowden said. “That is the only way we can protect kids who are too young to get vaccinated themselves. All of us as adults around them have to take responsibility for that.”