This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.
Kentucky has the fourth-highest rate in the nation of children hospitalized with COVID-19 for the month of September, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
So far this month, the state has recorded over 26,000 cases in kids 18 and under and an average of 59 children hospitalized each day, making it the most dangerous month for children since the pandemic began. Only Ohio, Montana and Alabama had higher hospitalization rates so far this month.
The federal data include confirmed and suspected cases, as well as newborns and patients in observation beds. These daily totals are consistently higher than those reported by the state.
The COVID-19 surge coincided with a return to school in August. While Kentucky lawmakers repealed the mask mandate issued for public schools earlier this month, most school districts have kept their mandates in place.
“This surge is affecting children in larger numbers than we have ever seen in this whole pandemic,” said Dr. Lindsay Ragsdale, director of UK HealthCare’s pediatric advanced care team. “We have seen more kids come to Kentucky Children’s Hospital with COVID positive tests and with symptoms. They do seem to have more symptoms this go round, because the Delta variant is more contagious.”
The previous peak among children was back in January, with close to 13,000 cases that month. But like other age groups, pediatric cases began to rise dramatically as the delta variant became the state’s dominant strain. By August, cases had doubled to nearly 25,000 — which is more cases than the previous six months combined.
Since the pandemic began, four Kentucky children have died from COVID-19 — two of which have occurred in just the last two weeks, according to state data.
Hospital admissions for children have increased by nearly 200% since July. Pediatricians from the state’s children’s hospitals say that while their ICUs have been fuller than ever before during the pandemic, they are working to accommodate as many children as they can and haven’t had to turn anyone away yet.
“[Wednesday] morning, we had 21 kids at Norton Children’s Hospital hospitalized with a positive COVID-19 test. That’s a lot,” said Dr. Kris Bryant, pediatric infectious diseases physician with Norton Children’s and the University of Louisville. “About a quarter of them are in the ICU. If you go back to June, we had many days when we had no children in the hospital with COVID-19. So it’s quite a change. But I really think that’s because the number of cases in the community has increased.”
As the current surge continues, there is also concern that pediatric care units could get too full, making it difficult for children to be seen for non-covid illnesses. As local physicians brace for the upcoming flu season, they are also seeing an unusually early spike in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This cold-like illness is common, and most kids recover in a week or two, but RSV can also lead to much more severe illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
Bryant said that with the rise in transmission, she is also seeing more cases of Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. According to the CDC, there have been over 4,600 patients in the U.S. diagnosed with MIS-C, a potentially life-threatening inflammation of internal organs that follows COVID-19 infection, and the majority have been Black or Hispanic children. There had been fewer than 100 casesreported in Kentucky as of August 27.
In addition to the more transmissible delta variant, local experts say the rise in COVID-19 among kids could also be attributed to increased activity and interaction, whether through school, family gatherings or community events. But the key, they say, is vaccinations.
“I think the most important thing for people to know is that COVID-19 is a vaccine-preventable disease in kids 12 and older. We have a safe and effective and available vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” Bryant said.
About 47% of Kentucky’s 12 to 17 year-olds have received their first dose, according to the state’s COVID data, which doesn’t say how many have been fully vaccinated. Pfizer announced earlier this week that its COVID-19 vaccine has proven effective in 5 to 11 year-olds and is now just waiting for FDA approval before it can be distributed widely. Health care officials say the vaccine could be available for Kentucky’s younger children as soon as Halloween.