JB Pritzker

Illinois Children's Hospitals Report Highest COVID Numbers of Pandemic So Far

“We've seen our biggest numbers in since the pandemic started actually," said Dr. Michael Cappello, vice chairman for the hospital

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As COVID cases surge in Illinois, area children's hospitals say they are seeing their biggest spike in cases and hospitalizations, with more kids testing positive than ever before during the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocate Children's Hospital reported 34 children were being treated for COVID at their two campuses as of Wednesday.

“We've seen our biggest numbers in since the pandemic started actually," said Dr. Michael Cappello, vice chairman for the hospital.

It's a similar situation at Lurie Children's Hospital.

"What we're seeing is dramatic, widespread community transmission," said Dr. Larry Kociolek, an infectious disease physician at Lurie.

At Comer Children's Hospital in Chicago's Hyde Park, hospitalizations have spiked in the last month to unprecedented numbers.

"We are seeing twice as many kids in the hospital who are testing positive for COVID than we saw even back in our bad peak in September," said Dr. Allison Bartlett, associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago.

Many of those testing positive are unvaccinated or too young to be vaccinated, health officials said, adding that the new omicron variant is likely behind the latest surge.

"It is so easy to spread that I think a lot of the higher numbers that we're seeing are purely a numbers game," Bartlett said.

When compared to delta, Kociolek said Lurie's pediatric COVID cases are up 1,000% from the baseline metrics seen during the wave of delta variant spread.

"What we're seeing is a ten-fold increase in the number of cases just compared to a few weeks ago, but the number of hospitalizations is up fourfold," he said.

Lurie has admitted 40 children with coronavirus in the last week alone. The previous peak the hospital reported was 20 children in a single week in December 2020.

It's a trend being seen in several U.S. states as omicron continues to take hold.

Pediatric hospitalizations are rising across several states in the U.S., but there are five states in particular that are making up a majority of the increases and Illinois is one of them, according to an NBC News analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data.

The analysis found that in nearly a dozen states, the number of kids hospitalized with COVID has more than doubled since Nov. 29. But five states have reportedly contributed the most to the rise in the U.S.: Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Ohio.

According data from the Illinois Department of Public Health, the state has seen spikes in youth cases in recent weeks across all age groups. Emergency room visits for such ages also increased around the holidays.

In Chicago, the number of hospitalizations for children 17 and under spiked by 113% in the last week, data showed. Cases were also up by 32% in the same time frame.

Illinois' top doctor said the state is watching such numbers very closely, noting that anecdotally, doctors are reporting a rise in such hospitalizations.

"So, we have seen that [increase] in some other states very clearly," Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Monday. "We're still looking at our numbers. I have anecdotally talked to many pediatricians who are heads of departments or hospitals who are seeing that there is an increase, so we are going to continue to follow those numbers."

The New York State Department of Health issued a warning Friday of a “striking increase” in new hospital admissions for children — particularly of unvaccinated children — amid spiraling coronavirus outbreak numbers in the state.

A health advisory said the recent fourfold increase in admissions that began the week of Dec. 5 are concentrated in New York City and the surrounding area, where the highly contagious omicron variant was spreading rapidly.

“The risks of COVID-19 for children are real,” acting State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a release.

“We are alerting New Yorkers to this recent striking increase in pediatric COVID-19 admissions so that pediatricians, parents and guardians can take urgent action to protect our youngest New Yorkers. We must use all available safe and effective infection control, prevention and mitigation strategies," she said.

While children are being hospitalized with COVID, Kociolek and Cappello said their hospitals haven't seen a large spike in children needing intensive care, which Kociolek called "reassuring."

Ezike said should more severe symptoms be reported in children across Illinois, it would be concerning given the state's capacity for treating critically ill kids.

"You know, there's not that many pediatric hospitals that can especially manage a very critically ill pediatric patient," Ezike said. "So if that bears out, you know, we want to get that information and we want people to be very aware of that."

When it comes to vaccinations, doctors across all three hospitals reported many of their cases are among unvaccinated children.

"We're seeing 90% of the kids that are in the hospital with COVID have not been vaccinated," Bartlett said of Comer Children's Hospital.

Similarly, at Lurie, two-thirds of the recent COVID infections reported are in children under the age of 5, meaning they are not eligible for vaccination yet.

"Young children typically are exposed from other people in the household. So if there's other people in the household that are not yet vaccinated or boosted it would be best for those to do that as soon as possible," Kociolek said.

"The fact that we're seeing almost exclusively unvaccinated patients in the hospital that speaks for itself. I think the message is really getting vaccinated," Capello said.

So far, 68.2% of Illinois' population over the age of 5 is fully vaccinated.

In delivering his first COVID update since the omicron variant first arrived in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday said the state is taking new measures to address surging cases and hospitalizations and a heightened demand for testing after the Christmas holiday and ahead of New Year's Eve celebrations.

Ezike said she's not ready to "sound the alarm" just yet, but noted "we have anecdotally heard and we've seen a mild increase" in pediatric hospitalizations.

"But we expect an increase because we are seeing, even though there's not a direct proportion now, the same proportion between cases and hospitalizations. We know as the cases have increased, the hospitalizations have definitely increased," she said. "We're averaging about 500 new COVID admits a day... a day. And so as it increases in adults it's absolutely going to increase a kids. So by that, we can say yes, the numbers are up. But is it where we are running out of the pediatric hospital beds? We're not getting that, but of course, that would be a natural assumption that we're going to continue to see more people. Hopefully, it won't be so severe. We don't want to report any more deaths period and of course those pediatric deaths are especially hard to deal with."

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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