With coronavirus cases in the U.S. approaching near-peak levels recorded last winter, pediatric coronavirus infection and hospitalization levels are now surging to their highest point in months.
Last week, nearly 200,000 American children tested positive for COVID-19, up by about 50% since the beginning of December, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association. Hospitalizations among children have been rapidly following suit.
Across the country, more than 2,100 children are currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 -- up by approximately 800 pediatric patients, compared to just a month ago, according to federal data.
As a growing number of COVID-19 positive children are admitted into the hospital in need of care, health care workers and experts are sounding the alarm about the concerning trend.
"Our most precious commodity in this United States of America is our children," Dr. Kenneth Remy, associate professor of internal medicine and pediatrics critical care with UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, told ABC News. "And right now, we're on fire."
Daily pediatric COVID-19 related hospital admissions have more than doubled in the last month, increasing by 110%. Now, an average of more than 300 children are being admitted to the hospital each day.
According to the health experts, a confluence of factors have led to the surge. The initial catalyst was the delta variant, subsequently followed by the recently discovered omicron variant. Further, vaccination rates, particularly among the pediatric population, continue to lag, leaving many children vulnerable to severe illness.
To date, less than a third of eligible children -- ages 5 to 17 -- have been fully vaccinated.
6 states report more than 100 children hospitalized with COVID-19
At the state level, more children are hospitalized with COVID-19 in New York than in any other state in the country, particularly in New York City, where children appear to be bearing the brunt of the state's latest surge in pediatric cases.
In less than three weeks, New York City has seen a five-fold increase since the week of Dec. 5, Mary Bassett, the state health commissioner, reported during an update with Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday.
"There's just no reason. We have the supply. We have the capacity. We have the staff in place for every child to be vaccinated, who is eligible," Hochul said, urging parents to use the winter break as a time to vaccinate their children.
Six states – Georgia, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas – currently have more than 100 children hospitalized with COVID-19.
In Pennsylvania, the PolicyLab at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia warned last week that it has seen a "sharp increase in test positivity" among children it has tested in the area.
"These data support the fact that transmission is now increasing disproportionately among children compared to adults," the group wrote. "We are seeing cases of moderate to severe disease among hospitalized children, including otherwise healthy children, particularly those who have not been vaccinated."
In Ohio, where more than 200 children are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, Dr. Adam Mezoff, chief medical officer at Dayton Children's Hospital, told ABC News that he has been concerned to see the recent increase in infected children.
"It seems to be hitting younger age groups, at this time," Mezoff said, adding that he expects to see more hospitalizations to follow, given the infectivity of omicron. "How sick they become is hard to estimate right now, because we don't have enough information."
Preliminary data from South Africa estimates that children had a 20% higher risk of hospitalization in the country's omicron-driven fourth wave, given the fact that so many children were still unvaccinated, and therefore, unprotected.
"We have to keep an eye on that," Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday. "That's one of the reasons why we say now that we have the capability and the authority to vaccinate children 5 to 11, that we're encouraging parents, that if you have a child from 5 to 11, please get that child vaccinated to prevent them from getting anything that even resembles a serious illness."
Although severe illness due to COVID-19 remains "uncommon" among children, according to the AAP and CHA, experts stress that young people are not immune from the virus, or from severe illness and death.
According to the CDC, children are as likely to be infected with COVID-19 as adults and the virus is now one of the top 10 causes of death for children ages 5 through 11 years.
In Northeast Ohio, Remy said that what is happening in his hospital "is a reflection" of what is happening in the rest of the country for children, further rebutting the misconception that children are unaffected by COVID-19.
"What we've seen over the past couple of weeks, sadly, is not even just a slow increase, but a direct shoot upward [trend] of children becoming ill from this disease, and coming into the ICU," Remy said. "Sadly, we've seen children at our institution and others, lose their lives. So we're in a different situation than we were many months ago."
Mezoff said he worries that there will be a lot of sick children, and he is also deeply concerned that there will not be enough staff to take care of them.
"The combination of large numbers of children that are sick with challenging staffing numbers does raise a lot of concern for us," Mezoff said.
Remy added that he and his colleagues fear that more people, including children, will be coming into the hospital in the next few weeks into the intensive care units.
"We're not just arcing upward. We are going straight upward," Remy said. "And suddenly over the next couple of weeks, this is going to get worse, and so sadly, too many people are going to lose their lives."
'This is a no brainer'
As the virus continues to spread, experts stress that vaccination remains the best tool to not only protect children from getting sick, but also to change the trajectory of the pandemic.
"If I knew that there was a fire outside my house, I would make sure that I had extinguishers. I would make sure that I had a way out and an escape plan for my children," said Remy, using, once more, his blaze metaphor to explain the current crisis of the unfolding pandemic. "Right now … being on fire, we have something that could actually quench much of those flames."
Mezoff noted that as of yet, Dayton's Children's Hospital has yet to care for a COVID-19 positive child who has been vaccinated.
Getting boosted when eligible and wearing masks also remain key to protect those who are still too young to be vaccinated, Remy said.
"We know that these things will quell those flames and protect our children. So to me, this is a no brainer," Remy said. "We only have one goal we've only had one goal and that's to improve the lives of children. That means keeping them alive."