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Children's National Hospital Leader: Omicron Variant 'Hitting Children Hard'

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   January 27, 2022

During the omicron surge, Children's National Hospital is admitting about three times as many children with COVID-19 than in earlier phases of the pandemic.

The omicron coronavirus variant is having a significant impact on children and parents should be getting their school-aged children vaccinated, the president and CEO of Children's National Hospital told The Washington Post this week.

Children have not been as severely impacted by COVID-19 as adults. Children have had lower hospitalization and death rates.

Children's National Hospital has been treating a higher number of children with COVID-19 during the omicron surge than in earlier phases of the pandemic, Kurt Newman, MD, president and CEO of the hospital, told The Washington Post.

"Through the beginning parts of the pandemic with the original variants, we would see routinely at a peak maybe 20 patients in the hospital … and about a third of them would go to the ICU. And people were thinking, well, maybe it didn't have that much impact on children. … Now with this omicron variant, we've seen what a false kind of set of conclusions that was. This variant is hitting children hard. It's hitting them differently. And it's really impacting our hospital. … With the other variants, our peak would be about 20 kids in the hospital at a time.  Lately, it's been about 60 or 70," he said.

The omicron variant poses a particular danger to younger children, Newman said.

"The science that we're seeing is that the kids are coming in with a little bit different presentation. Instead of deep in the lungs, … this omicron variant seems to hit the upper airway a little harder. And the real problem for children with that, particularly the smaller children and the babies—and we're seeing increased numbers of babies and smaller children—is that their airway is smaller. So, they can't take a lot of inflammation or infection," he said.

The omicron variant has strained the hospital's staff, but the Washington, D.C.-based facility has been able to maintain operations, Newman said. "They're stressed. But I am so proud of how our hospital has stepped up. We have not turned a patient away. We haven't closed a clinic."

Coronavirus vaccination for children

Children's National Hospital staff are anxious for coronavirus vaccination to be available for children under 5, he said. "We can't wait for the vaccine that will be approved, hopefully this spring, for children under 5, because they're unvaccinated and they are at risk."

Coronavirus vaccination rates for children aged 5 to 11 have been significantly lower than vaccination rates for adults, which is a concerning, Newman said. "I'm very disappointed because I did expect a much higher uptake among parents and children … to get that rate up where it needs to be."

For children who are eligible for vaccination, he said there are two priority groups who should get vaccines. The first priority is to vaccinate children who have underlying conditions such as cancer, sickle cell disease, and obesity. The second priority is to vaccinate children who struggle with access to vaccines such as children living in poverty. "We want to get those kids vaccinated," Newman said.

For parents who know children face lower risk from COVID-19 than adults and may want to take a cautious approach to vaccination, he said vaccination should still be encouraged. "Doing the right thing for your child may mean doing what's right for the public good as well. And your child may be impacted by what goes on with other children and families. … We've had enough experience now with these vaccines that they're safe. They're protecting your own children. … Maybe most importantly of all, they're protecting all of our children."

Parents with vaccination hesitancy for their children should also consider that new variants of coronavirus may arise that will have a greater impact on children, Newman said. "Having huge amounts of circulating virus … creates the opportunity for new variants and things that we don't know that could impact [children] in different ways. So, I would say study it all, talk to your pediatrician, talk to the public health authorities, and make that decision for your child."

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Unlike earlier coronavirus variants, which impacted deep in the lungs, the omicron variant has a more pronounced impact on the upper airway. This can be problematic for small children, who have relatively small upper airways.

The president and CEO of Children's National Hospital is "very disappointed" with the coronavirus vaccination rates of children aged 5 to 11.

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