Chicago-area children’s hospitals see dramatic spikes in kids admitted with COVID-19, amid latest surge

Chicago-area children’s hospitals are seeing dramatic spikes in the numbers of children needing hospitalization for COVID-19, with most of those kids unvaccinated and many younger than 5, doctors say.

Children under the age of 5 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. The increase in hospitalizations among children comes as Illinois sees record numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Lurie Children’s Hospital had about 10 times as many kids in the hospital with COVID-19 over the last two weeks as it did in late November, said Dr. Larry Kociolek, medical director of infection prevention and control at Lurie. Over the last two weeks, Lurie’s hospital cared for 110 kids with COVID-19. Most of those children were hospitalized specifically for COVID-19, with 20% to 25% admitted for other reasons but also found to have COVID-19.

At Advocate Children’s Hospital, the number of kids hospitalized because of COVID-19 or COVID-19-related issues has roughly tripled over the last month, to about 25 to 38 kids in the hospital on a daily basis, said Dr. Frank Belmonte, the hospital’s chief medical officer, during a news conference. About one-fourth of those children are in the intensive care unit, he said.

At University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, the number has also roughly tripled since September, to about 20 kids in the hospital with COVID-19 on a daily basis, said Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Comer. More than half of the kids hospitalized with COVID-19 at Comer are there because of illness while the others are there for other reasons, but happened to also test positive for COVID-19, she said.

“There continues to be this misconception that COVID is always mild in children or teens,” said Dr. Nekaiya Jacobs, a pediatric critical care physician at Advocate Children’s Hospital. “We’re starting to see more kids … suffering from severe complications.”

Children younger than 5 make up about half of the hospitalized children at Advocate, more than half at Lurie, and about one-third at Comer.

“For parents of kids who are less than 5, I understand that’s incredibly stressful right now,” Bartlett said.

Belmonte, with Advocate, said that this latest omicron variant seems to be affecting children younger than 5 in a slightly different way than past variants, sometimes causing upper respiratory issues with croup-like symptoms.

Some of the hospitalized children had no risk factors before catching COVID-19, said doctors at each of the hospitals. Others had prior health problems, though those can include common issues among kids in Chicago, such as obesity and asthma, said Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, an attending physician at Lurie in the division of infectious diseases.

While it remains true that most children who get COVID-19 don’t get severely ill, parents should be aware that it can happen, doctors say.

“On an individual level, the chance that one child is likely to get severely ill is low, but, on the flip side, some will get severely ill, and for that to be your child, it’s terrifying,” Heald-Sargent said. “So do everything you can do to protect not just your child but all children, and that, first and foremost, needs to be getting yourself vaccinated and everyone around you vaccinated.”

Heald-Sargent said the recent increase in hospitalizations among kids has made her “profoundly sad.”

“This is an entirely predictable situation, and as a society, we’ve failed our most vulnerable people, our children and our immunocompromised,” because not all adults have gotten vaccinated and because vaccine trials for children weren’t started earlier, Heald-Sargent said.

About 61% of Illinois residents are fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.

The increase in hospitalized children follows a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases overall in Illinois. State health officials on Thursday reported 44,089 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, setting a record. Over the past week, the state has averaged 27,141 new cases per day.

A record number of people are also now hospitalized with COVID-19 in Illinois — with 7,098 in hospitals as of Wednesday night, and an average of 6,419 per day over the past week. The increase in hospitalizations is straining hospitals, which have, in many cases, suspended or slowed elective surgeries to try to keep beds available.

Though the now-spreading omicron variant seems to be milder than the delta variant, it is far more contagious.

Advocate doctors said Thursday the best way for parents to keep their children safe is to get them vaccinated, and if they’re too young to be vaccinated, to make sure everyone else in the home is vaccinated. People who are vaccinated can still catch COVID-19 but are far less likely to get so sick that they need hospitalization.

Doctors also, however, cautioned that it’s important to balance the need for safety with children’s mental health. Parents should control what they can within their own homes — such as wake times, bed times and positive relationships — to help kids through this latest surge, especially as some schools close or go remote, said Dr. Laura Yahr Nelson, a pediatric psychiatrist with Aurora Children’s Health.

“Children do best when they have routine and connectedness in the world,” Nelson said. “They’ve lost loved ones but they’ve also lost out on experiences.”

Belmonte said it’s important for most children to go to school, as long as they can — words that came as Chicago Public Schools had their second day of no classes and an increasing number of suburban schools are closing.

“We know what the deleterious side effects were last year from remote learning,” Belmonte said. “We should be doing everything in our power to keep kids in school and do it safely. For the majority of kids, we have not seen major outbreaks in schools or in day cares.”

Chicago Tribune’s Dan Petrella contributed.