How to recognize COVID in your child and what you can do about it

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

COVID-19 cases may be spiking in York County's public schools, but it's not clear whether the increasing cases will translate into greater hospitalization. 

WellSpan Health's director of pediatrics, Dr. Christopher Russo, said in December that York Hospital's pediatrics unit was less than half occupied. Meanwhile, at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, pediatrician Dr. Jessica Ericson said their unit is serving 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.

According to WellSpan's website, York Hospital had 221 total COVID-19 patients as of Sunday, which is just one away from its record level of patients, seen on Jan. 1. The overall health system had 511 COVID-19 patients Sunday, which is more patients than the organization has ever had before in the pandemic. 

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

Across York County, COVID-19 hospitalizations were at 259 as of Monday. Among those patients were 54 adults in the ICU and 39 patients on ventilators, according to the state Department of Health. 

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. Since returning from winter break, the county's 16 school districts have recorded more than 100 cases every day except one. That is a significant rise compared against 2021 case levels, when schools only hit triple digits one day in mid-December. 

Nationwide, hospitalization rates are surging among children, according to a CNN report. Child COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. are at an average of 797 per day, which is the highest they have ever been and an 80% increase over the previous week. 

"I would say the best way to keep those children protected is to vaccinate them as they're eligible and surround them by siblings and parents who are vaccinated themselves," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Ericson said about half of Penn State Health's COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated teenagers, many of whom are above a healthy weight. They are also the hospital's sickest patients, she said, with several of them on ventilators. 

Dr. Jessica Ericson, a pediatric infectious diseases physician, is shown outside Penn State Health Children's Hospital in Hershey, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

She encouraged parents to vaccinate their children and keep them wearing masks at school. Russo, likewise, said parents should 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. 

Medical experts have observed that while the omicron variant is more contagious than other variants, it typically results in less severe symptoms. According to a Healthline report, children with more severe infections can have trouble breathing or show signs of dehydration. 

A Mayo Clinic report revealed that less severe infections typically result in symptoms similar to a cold, such as a fever, cough and fatigue. However, other more unique symptoms can include loss of taste or smell, and changes to the skin, such as discolored areas of the feet or hands. 

The same report said that some children can develop long-term symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, cough, muscle pains and trouble sleeping. Those symptoms could impact the child's education, in which case the report advised parents to speak to their child's teachers.

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