Our children’s hospitals are facing a perfect storm. The resurgence of COVID-19 in the form of the delta variant, the rapid increase in patient visits for viral conditions and mental health, and staffing shortages is placing major strains on the capacity of children’s hospitals to serve children.
The increased demand for care in children’s hospitals is not just an issue in a few cities or states; it is a national problem.
Reports of crowding are similar from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Denver and Miami. Many children’s hospital intensive care units are at or near capacity, with kids waiting in emergency departments because there aren’t enough beds to admit them or enough hospital staff to safely care for them.
In the previous month, the numbers of new COVID-19 cases in children and youth have more than quadrupled – from 39,000 per week to 181,000 per week. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2,100 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, setting a new seven-day record.
The surge in cases is explicable. Kids under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, and less than half the 12-17 age group have been fully vaccinated. Unless preventive measures are taken, the continued wave in pediatric cases and hospitalizations will continue.
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In addition to the delta variant, children’s hospitals are seeing rapid growth in the number of typical childhood viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus – or RSV, a serious respiratory illness in children unrelated to COVID-19.
While symptoms can be similar to COVID, RSV, bronchiolitis and the flu can be severe for infants and very young children. Children’s hospitals typically see the sharpest rise in viral cases during the winter, when children and families are more prone to congregate indoors. With masks coming off and families reconnecting with their lives and activities, RSV and other viruses are surging earlier and with high volumes.
If the viral surge didn’t pose enough of a challenge, children’s hospitals are grappling with growing demand for pediatric mental health services. Mental health was a national challenge before the pandemic, and the social impact of the pandemic has accelerated the problems facing millions of children and families.
Between April and October of last year, children’s hospitals saw a 24% increase in the proportion of mental health emergency department visits for kids ages 5 to 11. Children’s hospitals also grappled with a 17% increase in suicide and self-injury cases (inpatient and emergency) over the second half of 2020.
In 2021, demand for mental health services to date continues with a steep rise in emergency visits for suicide and self-injury.
Finally, the pandemic has taken a toll on the doctors and nurses working on the front lines in children’s hospitals who are experiencing distress and burnout. With some rethinking their careers and livelihoods amid a national shortage of health care workers, children’s hospitals are experiencing capacity constraints due to staffing.
Simply put, America's children’s hospitals will continue to struggle to keep up with the growing demands in the months ahead – unless we act now.
Wear a mask, get vaccinated
As a public, we can do our part to safeguard children from COVID-19. We can mask in K-12 schools as students, faculty and visitors. Adults and youth older than 12 can get vaccinated and encourage friends and family to be vaccinated. And we can lead by example for our kids by adhering to proven strategies such as social distancing, masking and handwashing to prevent spread.
For families with sick kids, pediatricians, family physicians and children’s hospitals are working together in communities to ensure every child in need can access a hospital bed. They are the best source of information to help families get the care their children might need.
As a nation, our federal government has the power and authority to ensure that our children’s health system is not upended, and that the pediatric safety net is strengthened, not further strained.
Biden administration can help
The Biden administration can direct support for surge capacity to pediatric hospitals through existing provider relief funding. Tens of billions of dollars are available and have not yet been released.
Legislatively, Congress can include funding for building new and different pediatric capacity and support workforce retention and expansion through infrastructure legislation.
It will take all of us working together and the might of the federal government to stem this storm’s rising tide and keep our children safe.
Mark Wietecha is CEO of the Children's Hospital Association, representing over 200 children’s hospitals in their role as leading national advocates for children’s health in Washington, D.C., and across the country.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID and kids: America's children hospitals are at breaking point