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Scientists examine kids' unique immune systems as more fall victim to COVID

Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News on

Published in News & Features

Eighteen months into the COVID-19 pandemic, with the delta variant fueling a massive resurgence of disease, many hospitals are hitting a heartbreaking new low. They’re now losing babies to the coronavirus.

The first reported COVID-related death of a newborn occurred in Orange County, Florida, and an infant has died in Mississippi. Merced County in California lost a child under a year old in late August.

“It’s so hard to see kids suffer,” said Dr. Paul Offit, an expert on infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which — like other pediatric hospitals around the country — has been inundated with COVID-19 patients.

Until the delta variant laid siege this summer, nearly all children seemed to be spared from the worst ravages of COVID-19, for reasons scientists didn’t totally understand.

Although there’s no evidence the delta variant causes more severe disease, the virus is so infectious that children are being hospitalized in large numbers — mostly in states with low vaccination rates. Nearly 30% of COVID-19 infections reported for the week that ended Sept. 9 were in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Doctors diagnosed more than 243,000 cases in children in the same week, bringing the total number of COVID-19 infections in kids under 18 since the onset of the pandemic to 5.3 million, with at least 534 deaths.

 

Experts say it’s a question of basic math. “If 10 times as many kids are infected with delta than previous variants, then, of course, we’re going to see 10 times as many kids hospitalized,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

But the latest surge gives new urgency to a question that has mystified scientists throughout the pandemic: What protects most children from becoming seriously ill? And why does that protection sometimes fail?

“This is an urgent and complex question,” said Dr. Bill Kapogiannis, senior medical officer and infectious-disease expert at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“We are doing everything we can to address it, using all the tools we have available,” Kapogiannis said. “Answers can’t come soon enough.”

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