Why 72,000 new COVID-19 cases among kids last week might better reflect vaccination rates than age

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A group of pediatricians says nearly 72,000 new cases of COVID-19 among children were reported last week.

But does that mean COVID-19 cases are rising disproportionately among kids?

Not necessarily — at least, not in North Carolina.

Focusing on that big number might miss the bigger picture: That the increase could have more to do with who’s vaccinated — and less to do with the kids who make up a subset of that group.

READ THE AAP REPORT HERE

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported just more than 3,500 new cases last week among kids under 18 — an increase of 42.9 percent from the 2,456 new cases that came a week earlier.

In a sign of proportionality, that’s the exact same percentage change in the number of new cases among everyone whose age was reported to DHHS — from 12,411 during the week of July 18 to 17,742 last week.

And a CBS17.com data analysis found the share of cases in kids has remained relatively constant through the past 1 1/2 months at roughly 20 percent, give or take a percentage point.

That cases among kids are rising at the same rate as they are among the general population — and that the share has been steady seems to indicate that children aren’t necessarily driving the increase.

With experts saying the pandemic at this point is most strongly affecting the unvaccinated — and kids under 12 unable to get the vaccine — those numbers could be a reflection of that.

“I’m not sure that we have a great answer to whether it’s really the unvaccinated kids versus unvaccinated adults that are driving that rise in cases in kids,” said Dr. Emily O’Brien, an epidemiologist at the Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chief of the division of infectious diseases in the pediatric department at Stanford and chair of the AAP committee on infectious diseases, made the vaccinated-vs.-unvaccinated distinction in speaking to CNN.com.

“That’s high and considering the fact that we are vaccinated now, what that’s telling us is that unvaccinated people are getting infected in higher numbers because the virus is more infectious with the delta variant,” she told the website.

Kids make up a fraction of that group of unvaccinated people who face a higher risk of catching the delta variant. About 2 million of the 5.2 million North Carolinians who have not gotten the vaccine are under 18, DHHS data show.

The ones between 12 and 17 can get the shot, but only about 30 percent of them — just under 260,000 — have done so.

“I think you’d have to be precise about what you mean by kids,” O’Brien said. “If it’s 12-to-17-year-olds who have access to the vaccine, they could fall in that vaccinated group. Some of them, over half, are still unvaccinated. Even though they’re eligible, they would be with the unvaccinated group. And then, of course, kids under 12, unless they’re part of a vaccine arm of an ongoing clinical trial, would also fall in the unvaccinated group.”

The AAP report also indicates that severe illness remains relatively rare among children. Those under 18 accounts for 1.4 percent of the more than 54,000 confirmed COVID-19 hospital admissions in North Carolina since Oct. 1, 2020, DHHS data show.

But O’Brien says she plans to monitor the hospitalization rates among children going forward because it’s not yet known if the Delta variant puts kids at a higher risk of serious illness than other strains of the virus.

“The hospitalizations that come as a result of having increased numbers of cases could actually be pretty high as well,” O’Brien said. “And that is coming down the pike for us.”

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