The soaring number of children contracting COVID-19 is straining Georgia's pediatric health care system.
More kids than ever before are suffering from coronavirus cases so severe that they need to be hospitalized, filling pediatric wards at a time when physicians are also contending with an unseasonable surge of other respiratory viruses.
Many area children's hospitals are reporting that more than three-quarters of their ICU beds are occupied — in some places, it's closer to 90%.
While ER doctors and pediatric specialists interviewed this week say they're able to keep up with cases for now, many fear what could come in the weeks ahead as the delta variant tears across the region and schools continue with in-person, often mask-optional learning.
"We haven't reached that critical moment yet where we're unable to provide that care," said Dr. James Black, medical director of emergency services at Albany's Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. "We're doing everything we can to stay just ahead of that, but it's a race and a race that most of us are losing."
Many are alarmed at the sheer increase of cases in such a short amount of time. In Georgia, the number of hospitalized children ages 0 to 4 has nearly quadrupled over the last two weeks, from 8 to 31, according to the state Department of Public Health. Among school-aged children 5 to 17, the number has almost doubled, from 28 to 50.
The situation is even more dire in other parts of the Southeast. In Dallas, earlier this week there were no more pediatric ICU beds available for children, and Louisiana's children's hospitals reached capacity earlier this month. In Florida, which is currently logging about one-fifth of the country's COVID hospitalizations, about 54 children were being admitted per day in early August.
"What we're seeing is that a low-frequency event, which is needing to be hospitalized, is happening a lot more frequently because so many kids are being infected in our communities right now," said Dr. Stephen Thacker, associate chief medical officer at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah.
In May, when the government authorized emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 15, health authorities hoped the shots would protect young people before they returned to school.