NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – More children under five years old are being hospitalized with COVID-19 across the country in recent weeks, and that total reached its highest level since the pandemic began.

“Here in Tennessee, we’re seeing some rising cases of hospitalizations for COVID among children,” said Dr. James Antoon, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Pediatric Hospitalist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “This is similar to the trend that we’re seeing nationwide and this will likely get worse before it gets better as we see the effects of the holiday gatherings.”

The most recent data from the Tennessee Health Department about COVID-19 in school-aged children was shared on January 4. At that point, about 11,000 school-aged children tested positive for COVID across the state during a two-week period.

Dr. Antoon said health experts are still learning about the impact the omicron variant is having on children, but the trends so far include less severe illness as has been the case with adults.

“We’re seeing very strong protection with vaccines as it relates to severe COVID with omicron, and by that I mean hospitalization, need for mechanical ventilation or life support, and death,” he said. “So vaccines still protected very well against severe COVID, although we are seeing more cases of mild symptomatic COVID and asymptomatic COVID with the omicron variant among the vaccinated as well.”

Dr. Antoon added, however, they are starting to see more of what doctors call “croup” with the omicron variant compared to delta and others.

“It’s when the virus settles in the upper airway in children less than five, it can cause difficulty breathing, and what we call stridor, or difficulty breathing on inspiration and a barky cough that requires treatment,” he explained.

And it’s not just COVID. Dr. Antoon said other respiratory illnesses are showing up in children at the hospital as well.

“Last year, with all of our social distancing measures, we didn’t see a lot of respiratory disease and children…it was at an all-time low,” he said. “This year, we’ve had waxing and waning viral seasons for a number of different viruses. We are seeing flu right now. We’re seeing RSV, parainfluenza in addition to COVID, and we are seeing children hospitalized with COVID and influenza COVID and RSV.”

He said doctors are closely watching the next few weeks to see how these other viruses operate during the surge in COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant.

“Thankfully, these sort of peaks in other viruses have not coincided with some of our peaks with COVID. Our fall season we did see a lot of RSV and COVID at the same time, and we have not seen the height of omicron yet,” he said.

He said doctors expect to see more COVID-19 cases nationwide among children, and more hospitalizations, particularly in unvaccinated children. He reminds parents there are still many unknowns about the omicron variant and how it affects children.

“We don’t know how much omicron will result in long COVID in children; we’re still learning a lot about long COVID in children in general,” Dr. Antoon explained. “We also don’t know the relationship between omicron and MISC or multi-system inflammatory disorder in children who have had COVID. This is a post COVID effect and you usually see rising cases four to six weeks after we see rises in COVID cases, and we don’t know how much MISC we’re gonna see with omicron compared to how much we have with delta and wild type COVID.”

According to the Tennessee Health Department, about 9.5 percent of children 5-11 are fully vaccinated and 35.2 percent of children 12-15 have completed their COVID-19 vaccination.

“In the first week of January, there were over 580,000 cases of COVID nationwide and that’s the highest amount of pediatric cases we’ve had in a week so far. This is especially challenging in the age groups where they (children) just can’t get vaccinated,” said Dr. Antoon. “I’m a parent of two children who are not eligible for the vaccine, and the strategy I tell parents is the same one that my family implements are to create a bubble of security around them, vaccinate as many people around your child as possible, wear masks as much as possible around these children who just can’t get the vaccine, who are also at increased risk of getting COVID and potentially having negative consequences from having COVID.”

Dr. Antoon said he understands that people have COVID fatigue because he does as well.

“I don’t want to be taking care of children in the hospital with COVID. I don’t want them to have it. There is still this myth circulating that children can’t get sick from COVID. They absolutely can. I see children every day in the hospital with COVID-19,” he said. “We’ve studied this very well; we’ve identified which children are at highest risk of having severe COVID disease. However, more children are admitted to the hospital who are otherwise healthy, with no underlying conditions, than those who have underlying conditions. Children absolutely can get sick with COVID. And we need to try and protect them as much as we can.”

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In Tennessee, 29 children have died from COVID since the pandemic started.

“That’s not 29 hypothetical cases, those are 29 children that this has affected. And we can compare that to other conditions all that we want, but I don’t think that’s any comfort to those families, and we need to do the best we can to try and protect those children who can’t protect themselves,” said Dr. Antoon.