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The U.S. has hit a new record for the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. has hit a new record for COVID hospitalizations and a new record for the number of children hospitalized too. One place pediatric hospitalizations are rising quickly is Texas. Joining us to talk about this is Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media.

Hi there.

SARA WILLA ERNST, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Bring us up to speed on the latest numbers.

ERNST: So right now in Texas, there are just under 400 kids hospitalized for COVID. CDC data shows that's a 600% increase here since mid-December among kids 18 and under.

SHAPIRO: And so what does that look like on the ground? Take us into a hospital.

ERNST: Yeah, so this crush of omicron cases in children is causing hospitalizations to surge statewide. Here in Houston at Texas Children's Hospital, pediatric COVID hospitalizations have been doubling every week over the past month or so. Here's spokesperson Natasha Barrett.

NATASHA BARRETT: Our teams have been in the hospital every day in and day out, and it is heartbreaking to see what we're seeing in the halls of our hospital. Just last week, I saw babies in the ICU with COVID.

SHAPIRO: Sara, what are the ages and the vaccine status of the kids who are being admitted?

ERNST: So at Texas Children's, about a third are under 5, so that's too young to even be eligible for the vaccine. According to the Mayo Clinic, only about 13% of kids 5 to 11 in Texas are vaccinated, and that's below the national average for that age group of 17%. In older kids, that rate for Texas and the U.S., though, is about 50% according to Mayo's numbers. And Dr. Adam Ratner with the American Academy of Pediatrics says the trend of the unvaccinated making up most pediatric COVID hospitalizations is really nationwide now, not just in Texas.

ADAM RATNER: The vast majority of them are unvaccinated. In some cases, these are vaccine-eligible kids who have not gotten vaccinated yet. And in some cases, we are seeing vaccinated kids who have been admitted to the hospital. But in many of those cases, these are kids with underlying medical issues, and COVID is one of several things that tips them over into needing hospital admission.

SHAPIRO: What about the timing of this? Is it all tied to the omicron variant?

ERNST: Yeah, the omicron variant is just a lot more infectious in general. Kids 5 to 11 have been able to get vaccines since late October, which really hasn't been all that long. And Texas Children's is seeing not just COVID cases but other respiratory viruses, including the flu, while last winter, there was almost no influenza. And in Texas, there are also fewer restrictions now than this time last year. The statewide mask mandate was dropped last March. Many schools now have mask-optional policies, and many more workers and students are back in person.

SHAPIRO: What's the forecast for the next few weeks? What are hospitals and doctors expecting?

ERNST: So researchers at the University of Texas - they're projecting that omicron cases regardless of age will peak in mid-January, and then it will begin to decline. So until then, for frontline workers, it's really a matter of treating these patients. And for kids younger than 12, there aren't a ton of treatment options. They're not eligible for the COVID antiviral pills, which are in really short supply right now, or for monoclonal antibodies that are effective against omicron. And as the doctors I talked to said, the next few weeks is also about, you know, better getting the message out that the measures that we're familiar with, you know, vaccinating more people, masking and social distancing, can really help slow the spread.

SHAPIRO: Sara Willa Ernst of Houston Public Media, thank you.

ERNST: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sara Willa Ernst