Dr. Tina Sosa has recently spent a lot more time consoling heartbroken parents as their COVID-19 infected children lay in hospital beds, struggling to breathe.
Most of these mothers and fathers were tormented by their decision to decline to vaccinate their children against the respiratory disease, said Sosa, a pediatric hospitalist at Golisano Children’s Hospital in Rochester.
But many of the parents were also far from anti-vaccine, but rather thoughtful guardians who agonized over the risks and rewards of COVID-19 vaccines — until it was too late, she said.
“These past two years of the pandemic have been incredibly challenging for parents for a variety of reasons, and one is the decision around this vaccine,” she added, noting the COVID-19 threat to children was comparatively much lower than adults for most of the pandemic.
The risk calculus, however, has rapidly evolved since early December as the highly contagious omicron variant sent record-high numbers of kids to hospitals.
“Parents are realizing that what we’re dealing with in this stage of the pandemic is different,” Sosa said, adding the rise in hospitalized children is also distressing pandemic-weary health care workers.
“We never want to see a child die from a vaccine-preventable disease,” she added, noting the COVID-19 vaccines have proven safe and effective at limiting severe illnesses for children ages 5 and above.
Meanwhile, vaccination rates among ages 5 to 11 have all but stalled in some counties in New York, which reported a 25% vaccination rate for the age group statewide on Friday.
For ages 12 to 17, the vaccination rate statewide stood at about 66%, though many counties lagged well behind that pace, excluding heavily vaccinated Westchester County and parts of New York City and Long Island.
Yet efforts to identify some barriers to vaccination — such as those linked to potential gaps in reaching Black and brown children — are hindered by the fact that state and federal officials have yet to release pediatric vaccination data by race and ethnicity.
How COVID-19 is spreading among NY children
Recent public-health alerts have underscored the rising COVID-19 risks for children in New York.
That included a 700% increase statewide in pediatric hospitalizations related to the coronavirus between Dec. 5 and Jan. 8, as the omicron variant replaced the delta variant, according to a state Department of Health study.
The review also looked at hospital admissions during the week of Jan. 3 to 9.
Among those hospitalizations:
90% of 5- to 11-year-olds were unvaccinated
61% of 12- to 17-year-olds were unvaccinated
Further, the hospitalizations included children without underlying health conditions, underscoring how the virus was causing severe-enough illness to send otherwise healthy kids to hospitals, the study found.
For the week ending Jan. 14, for example, a total of 54% of COVID-19 positive children younger than 18 admitted to hospitals had no comorbidities. And 64% of them were symptomatic for the respiratory disease, meaning just 36% were so-called incidental positive test cases admitted for other reasons.
Sosa has treated COVID-19 infected children for a range of symptoms. Some of them required supplemental oxygen and other kids suffered fever-related seizures, with some cases requiring weeks-long hospital stays and rehabilitation to recover.
Several rare cases left children on ventilators, parents watching helplessly from the sidelines, she said.
“It’s important for everyone to remember it’s never normal for a child to be hospitalized — particularly for an infectious disease like this,” she added, noting even children who recover from COVID-19 should be vaccinated to protect against re-infection and readmission.
The largest hospitalization increases involved children ages 4 and younger who remain ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines. This group’s hospital admission rate increased to 4.21 per 100,000 population from well below 1 per 100,000, the study found.
The virus also still posed a more significant threat of severe illness to older people.
The hospital admission rates during the study period reached:
Slightly above 1 per 100,000 New Yorkers ages 5 to 11
7 per 100,000 among ages 19 to 64
And nearly 30 per 100,000 in ages 65 and above
As for COVID-19 deaths, ages 19 and younger accounted for 51 confirmed COVID fatalities in New York as of Friday, which is up from 32 in late September, state data show. But any potential increases connected to the omicron wave remain unclear due to lags between infection and death.
Where pediatric COVID-19 vaccines lag in NY
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for children, in some ways, followed trends seen for adults.
In both cases, an initial crush of demand was followed by a slow and steady drive to reach New Yorkers who were to reluctant, or unable, to get shots.
For example, within the first month of vaccines gaining approval for ages 5-11 on Nov. 3, about 300,000 kids in the age group got their first of Pfizer-BioNtech’s two-dose vaccine.
But the pace of ages 5-11 vaccinations has slowed since, with the partial vaccination tally at about 546,000 as of Friday, or 34% of children in the age group.
Some counties, however, lag far behind the 34% partial vaccination rate, as large swaths of rural upstate New York reported the lowest rates, including the Mohawk Valley’s Fulton County at 13%.
And a total of 22 of the 62 counties statewide reported rates at 20% or below on Friday, including Orange and Rockland counties, each at about 18%.
But it is difficult to determine why some communities are lagging, in part, due to the missing race and ethnicity data.
Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic children nationally are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than white children, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show.
State and federal officials have said pandemic data, including on race and ethnicity, is collected and released as soon as possible after confirming accuracy.
Yet the gaps in vaccination protection could only widen in coming months, as CDC now recommends that adolescents ages 12 to 17 should receive a booster shot five months after completing the two-dose regimen.
As for the reasons that parents’ chose not to vaccinate their children, safety and potential side effects were prominent concerns, according to a national survey by Kaiser Family Foundation last month.
About 63% of parents say they are confident that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for adults. But fewer parents are confident the vaccines are safe for children ages 12-17 (52%) and ages 5-11 (43%), the survey findings noted.
Most parents say getting infected with COVID-19 would be a bigger risk to their child’s health than getting vaccinated.
However, majorities of unvaccinated parents and Republican parents believe the vaccine poses a greater risk than the virus itself, even though scientific bodies have concluded the opposite is the case.
Parents in low-income and Black and Hispanic communities were also more likely to say they are concerned they might have to miss work to get their child vaccinated, that they won’t have a trusted place to go, or that they’ll have difficulty traveling to a vaccination location.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday urged more parents in New York to get their children vaccinated, announcing 17 new pop-up vaccine sites targeting the age group. It is part of 80 similar sites being opened over the next six weeks to improve access, she said.
“So please, parents, if you've not done this, there's still plenty of time,” Hochul said, adding the vaccines remain key to keeping schools open for in-person learning.
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: More NY kids hospitalized due to COVID, fewer getting vaccinated