As the Omicron variant shatters Illinois COVID-19 case and hospitalization records, suburban doctors say they’re seeing more children come down with severe coronavirus cases than ever before.
Advocate Children’s Hospital locations in Park Ridge and Oak Lawn have had up to 38 kids admitted with the virus this week, a figure that has tripled over the past month, Advocate Aurora Health leaders said Thursday.
About a quarter of the infected youngsters have required intensive care, according to the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Frank Belmonte. It’s the most children the network has treated for COVID since the pandemic hit, and Omicron is presenting a new set of challenges.
“It seems to affect children under the age of 5 in a little bit of a different way,” Belmonte said during a media web conference. “We’re seeing more upper airway issues with this particular variant, so kids coming in with croup-like symptoms or bronchiolitis.”
Despite the common misconception that kids are less prone to severe cases, they’ve always been vulnerable — especially those under 5 who aren’t yet eligible for vaccines — and doctors are now seeing a marked uptick in acute respiratory issues “even in infancy,” pediatric critical care physician Dr. Nekaiya Jacobs said.
“We’re starting to see more and more patients of the pediatric age suffering from severe complications that are related to either their initial infection with COVID, or post-COVID syndromes,” Jacobs said. “There’s just so much to still learn and see. We just don’t know the implications that could occur in the future.”
But there isn’t any question about how to slow the crisis, experts say: Get vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.
About 94% of Advocate’s pediatric COVID-19 patients have been unvaccinated, and many come from households where no one was vaccinated. About half of their patients hospitalized over the last month were 5 or younger, meaning most of them weren’t old enough for a life-saving shot.
That’s the same pattern playing out for COVID-19 patients of all ages across Illinois, which set another record with 44,089 new cases announced Thursday, according to the state Department of Public Health. That’s almost 12,000 more cases than the previous record set a day earlier — and it’s more than the state recorded throughout all of June and July.
Hospitals across the state were treating 7,098 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday night, another record figure that increased by 256 in a span of 24 hours. Roughly nine out of every 10 new patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, officials say. Almost a quarter of Illinoisans 5 or older still haven’t gotten a shot.
New COVID-19 cases by day
Graphic by Jesse Howe and Caroline Hurley | Sun-Times
Source: Illinois Department of Public Health
Belmonte called on all eligible residents to roll up a sleeve, including 12- to 15-year-olds who are now eligible for booster shots.
“We need to reboot those the things that we were doing back in March [of 2020], the social distancing, diligence about masking — all of that is very important for this particular variant,” he said.
Despite seeing more pediatric cases, Belmonte said “we should be doing everything in our power to keep kids in school.”
“We know we know what the deleterious side effects were from last year in remote learning. … For the majority of kids, we have not seen major outbreaks in schools or in day cares, [so] if it’s possible, keep them in school.”
Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady — who has maintained in-person learning can be done safely amid the city’s standoff with the Chicago Teachers Union — said Tuesday that pediatric COVID hospitalizations are still “very rare” in the city, with an average of about seven per day last week.
State officials couldn’t immediately say what percent of Illinois’ current COVID-19 hospital admissions are under 18.
Older people are still the most susceptible. Residents older than 60 have accounted for more than 80% of COVID-19 deaths in Cook County.
The state reported 104 more viral deaths on Thursday, the most in a day in nearly a year. Illinois has lost an average of 63 residents to the virus each day over the last week, up from a rate of 22 deaths per day the week of Thanksgiving.
More breakthrough cases are piling up, “but the difference is that people who are fully vaccinated, especially if they’re also boosted, are not the ones getting seriously ill,” Arwady said.
Vaccines are free at pharmacies nationwide, and the city also offers free in-home vaccination appointments. For more information, visit chicago.gov/covidvax or call (312) 746-4835.