Pediatric hospital admissions for COVID-19 on the rise in Oklahoma, doctors say

Dana Branham
Oklahoman

Oklahoma City doctors said they’re seeing more hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 during this surge than during any previous wave of the pandemic. 

At Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health, three times as many children are being hospitalized with COVID-19 now compared with last winter’s surge. Oklahoma recorded a three-day average of 43 pediatric hospitalizations statewide Thursday, up 30 from a month ago.

“We are seeing more kids admitted to the hospital,” said Dr. Cameron Mantor, the hospital’s chief medical officer. “We've had a 2-week-old admitted to the hospital — it's the very small (children) up through teenagers.” 

More:COVID and kids: How the omicron surge is impacting child hospitalizations, school safety

While the percentage of children being hospitalized is still low, the sheer number of people infected with COVID-19 — and how contagious the omicron variant is — may be driving the rise in pediatric hospitalizations, experts said. 

COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed in Oklahoma in the past week, with the state recording several all-time highs for single-day case totals. 

Thursday’s new case count — more than 10,500 — is the highest-ever single day total for Oklahoma. As high as cases have been, official totals are certainly an undercount, since there is no mechanism for reporting at-home tests.

More:Unvaccinated were over 3 times more likely to be hospitalized or die of COVID, Oklahoma study shows

“There's a lot of discussion about how omicron is milder, which it does appear to be,” said Dr. Donna Tyungu, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health. “But if you still have these huge numbers of (infections), even if it's 50% less severe, you will still have very large numbers of people who do need hospital care and come and get admitted, which is starting to happen now.” 

While most children recover well from COVID-19, that’s not to say that a mild or complication-free COVID-19 case is guaranteed.

“We don't know how many people will develop long COVID because of omicron. We don't know how many children will develop MIS-C because of omicron,” Tyungu said. “You also don't know if you're the one who's going to have a severe, severe disease from it.” 

MIS-C, short for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, is a rare but serious condition some children develop after having COVID-19. It can be deadly. 

In the state Health Department’s latest data, 15 children under 5 — all too young to be vaccinated — were hospitalized with COVID-19 last week, along with five children between the ages of 12 and 17.

Kids so far are making up a smaller share of new cases than at other points during the pandemic — just under 14% of new cases were in people under 18 last week. During the height of the delta variant wave in late summer of 2021, children made up about a quarter of new cases. 

More:While omicron symptoms are mild for some, COVID is again overwhelming OKC hospital staff, ERs

Keeping kids healthy amid omicron variant surge

In light of the omicron surge, vaccinations and mask-wearing are crucial to keep kids healthy and to keep children in school, Mantor said. 

“Getting back in school is really important, but we have to do it safely,” he said. “The way to do it safely is get vaccinated, and ask them to wear a mask.” 

Many suburban and rural school districts in Oklahoma don’t require mask-wearing in schools, though some large, urban districts like Oklahoma City Public Schools still do. 

But regardless of a district’s mask policy, “there's absolutely no reason that a parent can't be proactive and protective of their children, and ask them to wear a mask while they're at school,” Mantor said. 

Experts also suggest upgrading from cloth masks to more protective medical-grade masks. 

More:Don't go to the ER just for a COVID-19 test, OKC hospitals say. Here's where to find one

“Even though cloth masks do help collect some of the droplets that come out of everyone’s mouth, they are not as effective with airborne spread of viruses,” Tyungu said. “Now there's ample supply of masks throughout the country. Everyone should utilize a well-fitted surgical mask or even a KN95 to go about their day.”

Children as young as 5 are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. In the 5 to 11 age range, only about 8% of the state’s children have been fully vaccinated. Adolescents ages 12 to 17, who have been eligible for several months longer than the youngest age group, are about 33% fully vaccinated, according to state data. 

“Doing everything we can to get our kids vaccinated is important,” Mantor said. “It’s important for the kids. Although they continue to do well, even if they become infected, they’re vectors for spreading the virus to Mom and Dad or to Grandma and Grandpa, who may not be as healthy.” 

More:Who needs a COVID-19 booster dose? Here's where you can get one in Oklahoma City.

Find a COVID-19 vaccine near you

To find a COVID-19 vaccination appointment near you, visit vaccines.gov to search by ZIP code. More vaccination opportunities can be found at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov and vaxokc.com