COVID-19 surge spurs differing hospitalization rates among children

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

While COVID-19 cases are spiking in York County's public schools, that's not necessarily translating into increased hospitalizations for children. 

WellSpan Health's director of pediatrics, Dr. Christopher Russo, said in December York Hospital's pediatrics unit was less than half occupied. But at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, pediatrician Dr. Jessica Ericson said their unit is more than double their previous maximum level of patients, and is growing daily. 

"Today is our new maximum, and yesterday was our new maximum before that," Ericson said. 

More:Strike team arrives to aid York Hospital as county reports 2,000 more COVID-19 cases

More:More Pa. children are being hospitalized for COVID-19 than ever. But why?

According to Ericson, the children's hospital saw at most seven COVID-19 patients hospitalized during the previous peak of the pandemic. As of Tuesday, the hospital had 16 patients, with even more admitted Wednesday, she said. 

The demand is high enough to strain the hospital's capacity, though Ericson said they haven't had to turn any patients away yet. Officials have mitigated the pressure so far by shuffling rooms around.

Within the WellSpan Health system, York Hospital is so overwhelmed by adult COVID-19 patients that the facility received aid via a federal strike team that arrived Monday. But Russo said the health system is not seeing the same hospitalization rates for children. 

Karen Graham watches her son, Douglas, sleep after a therapy session in Penn State Children’s Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

While WellSpan has seen a slight increase in child hospitalization rates, Russo said the percentage is actually lower than what the health system typically sees during the winter months in a year outside the pandemic. Additionally, he said many of their current patients are hospitalized for reasons other than COVID-19. 

However, the omicron variant has definitely spurred a steady rise in COVID-19 cases among children, Russo confirmed. He said childhood cases are rising about 27% week over week. The surge has made an impact in York County public schools which have recorded more than 900 new cases in less than three weeks. 

Case rates are spiking nationwide, but hospitalization rates are not matching the same pace for adults or children, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Public health experts observed that many of the newly infected have less severe symptoms, which they expect reflects the efficiency of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“It is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases," Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday. 

Ericson said about half of Penn State Health's patients are unvaccinated teenagers, many of whom are above a healthy weight. She encouraged parents to vaccinate their children and keep them wearing masks at school.

Russo also encouraged parents to make sure their children get their flu shot, as the flu can pose an even greater health risk to children on top of the pandemic. 

"We certainly don't want to have the 'twindemic'," Russo said. 

— Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.