What Parents Should Know as Pediatric COVID Hospitalizations Soar, According to an ER Physician

Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a specialist in pediatric emergency medicine, urges parents to get their kids vaccinated as COVID-19 cases hit record highs

EMS medics from the Houston Fire Department check the breathing of a Covid-19 positive girl, age 2, before transporting her to a hospital
EMS medics from the Houston Fire Department check on a COVID-positive 2-year-old. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Over the last week, pediatric cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations have reached record highs, with around 4,000 kids now hospitalized with the virus, double the number two weeks prior. The reasons for the large jump are complicated: The highly contagious omicron variant, the low vaccination rates for kids 5 and up, and that children under 5 aren't yet eligible for a vaccine all contribute to the spike.

"This very well may be just the fact that there are more cases out there, and our children are more vulnerable when there are more cases around them," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a press briefing on Friday. "We have not yet seen a signal that there is any increased severity with this variant."

But parents are, understandably, worried about the rise in cases and how to keep their children safe. Here, PEOPLE Health Squad pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a specialist in Pediatric Emergency Medicine and Child Health Advocacy at the University of Rochester Medical Center, shares what parents need to know about the current state of COVID-19 and what to do if their child gets sick.

What are you seeing at your hospital? Are pediatric cases going up?

"We are seeing more cases, and it's a combination of too young to be vaccinated or not vaccinated," Murray says. "One important thing we have started to see is children who have had COVID-19 last year are getting it again. No one should count on disease acquired immunity to guarantee on-going protection."

What symptoms are they coming in with?

Murray says the kids have a "large variety" of symptoms — she's seen kids with fever, cough, congestion, trouble breathing, muscle aches, and in some cases, gastrointestinal symptoms.

If a child has COVID-19, at what point are they sick enough that parents should bring them to the hospital?

That depends on the child, Murray says. "Parents know their children best and if they feel something isn't right, they should call their pediatrician or seek medical care. Symptoms of COVID-19 can be broad, so some children struggle with dehydration, [while] some have trouble breathing."

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Are the vaccines making a difference?

"Yes, one consistent factor is that vaccination is still quite protective against severe disease and hospitalization," Murray says. "The ability of the vaccine to protect against hospitalization has decreased with omicron, but it is still very helpful. Boosters add an extra layer of protection so it is great news that more of the population can now receive a booster dose."

The problem, though, is that kids under 5 aren't yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, and that not enough older kids have gotten vaccinated. Walensky said Friday that just 16% of 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and slightly over 50% of 12- to 17-year-olds.

Kids that are unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, Walensky said.

How can parents and kids stay safe?

"The concept of layers of protection remains critical: vaccination and boosters, masking in school, testing (and staying home) if anyone has symptoms, and making smart choices about social gatherings," Murray says. "For those who are too young to be vaccinated, create a cocoon of protection around them — ensure all people in the household who can be vaccinated are and limit their exposure to groups of people outside their household."

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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