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Six health officials from around the state warned that "we are still in a crisis" during a virtual press conference Thursday about the fifth wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The refrains were familiar: the pandemic is still raging, hospitals are fuller than ever and vaccination is the most important measure for preventing severe illness and death and keeping future variants at bay.
What is new is that an unprecedented number of children are being caught in the undercurrent of the omicron wave.
"Omicron has really disproportionately affected children," said Andrea Shane, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "And more than the alpha or the delta surge, we are really seeing a tremendous challenge in taking care of children."
In addition to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the conference featured representatives from Emory Healthcare, Grady Health System, Northeast Georgia Health System, Piedmont Healthcare and Wellstar Health System.
During the delta surge in August and September, approximately one-tenth of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta hospitalizations were due to COVID-19, Shane said, adding that the positivity rate ranged from 10% to 20%.
"In comparison, during omicron, our test positivity rate has been over 50%," she said. "We've had over the past three or four weeks more than 100 children with COVID-related complications representing both acute COVID infections and continued hospitalizations or complications of COVID-19."
Marcus Bullock, practice administrator at Pediatric Associates in Gainesville and Braselton, said the COVID-19 positivity rate is about 50%, "easily double" what it was during the delta wave.
Likewise, the positivity rate at Longstreet Clinic has "skyrocketed," said pediatrician Katie Herzog, though she added that children appear to be less ill than during the delta wave.
There appear to be fewer coronavirus cases at local schools during this fifth surge. The Hall County School District, which has about 27,000 students, reported 133 total cases as of Jan. 20. Near the peak of the delta wave, it reported 379 cases in August 2021. Gainesville City Schools, which has about 8,000 students and currently requires universal masking, reported 146 cases as of Jan. 14.
Of the nearly 9.5 million children who have tested positive for COVID-19, one-tenth were recorded in a single week ending Jan. 13, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the same week, children accounted for more than one-fifth of all new coronavirus cases.
The national mortality rate for children is likely no higher than 0.02%, according to data collected by the American Academy of Pediatrics. But health officials are concerned about the long-term complications of contracting the virus and the many unknowns.
"We don't know the long-term effects yet on children," said Megan Farley, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic. "We don't know what's going to happen in five or 10 or 15 years. Hopefully nothing, hopefully no long-term effects. We just don't know."
Some health officials are particularly worried about multisystem inflammatory syndrome, known as MIS-C.
"The thing that really puts fear in our hearts is MIS-C," Herzog said, adding that a diagnosis tends to lag behind infection by two to eight weeks. "And so it's yet to be seen if we're gonna see a spike in that."
Children who develop the syndrome, she added, can present symptoms that range from prolonged fevers to heart failure.
"I took care of a child, a 4-year-old, who has MIS-C," Farley said. "I was so angry because I just felt like, that's a little kid, a little kid that we did not protect, and now he has a long-term heart problem because we didn't protect him as a society. ... If I think about it, I get so angry because we don't know what his long-term prognosis will be."
"For that family, he's their whole world," she said.
To date, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta has cared for more than 400 children diagnosed with the syndrome, Shane said.
She recommends the "cocoon method" for protecting children who are too young to be vaccinated. That means, first and foremost, that parents and family members get vaccinated themselves, which is the "mainstay of prevention and the foundation for keeping our children healthy."
"The way to prevent MIS-C is to prevent COVID-19," she said.