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The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a report on COVID-19 in children, and the findings show just how much kids have been affected by the global pandemic.
The report reveals that September was the worst month for child COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began, with counts far exceeding last winter's spike in cases of the virus. While the AAP's state-level data report on children and COVID-19 shows that cases are decreasing across the country, it notes that there is an "extremely high" number of newly diagnosed pediatric cases each week.
At its peak, nearly 252,000 child cases of COVID-19 were added the week of Sept. 2. For the week ending Oct. 14, there were about 131,000 new child COVID cases. The AAP notes that more than 1.1 million child cases were added over the past six weeks.
Children now account for 25.5 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the country, despite making up 22.2 percent of the U.S. population.
What's going on here? "It is hard to say for certain, but the return to school and cooler weather with less outdoor activities likely played some role," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.
Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees that heading back to school likely played a role in the increase in cases. "Delta is very infectious towards children, and children went back to school in August and September," she tells Yahoo Life. "It's just physical bodies, being together."
The Delta variant also became widespread in late summer and early fall and, given that it's more transmissible than previous variants, it's natural that it would infect more people — including children, Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "This was particularly true for individuals who were unvaccinated or ineligible for vaccination," she says.
While some schools across the country have had mask mandates, others haven't or even have been forbidden from mandating masking in schools — and that seems to have driven cases too, Watkins says.
The way families behaved outside school made an impact as well. As children went back to school, "people relaxed a lot of their expectations about what the pandemic means for children," Fisher says, noting that many resumed school sports and other activities. "Even though masking does work to prevent the spread of the virus, our kids were mostly home before this," she adds.
The spike in September cases naturally raises questions about what may happen this winter. It's "difficult to predict," Watkins says, noting that "we are seeing some promising signs the pandemic might be waning." However, Fisher points out that things like holiday gatherings and travel have historically caused increases in infections. "It will be a wait-and-see situation," she says.
There is hope on the horizon, though: The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it has a plan in place for vaccinating children ages 5 through 11 against COVID-19. Currently, only people ages 12 and up are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.
The announcement comes ahead of an anticipated emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to open up the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children as young as 5. The FDA will meet on the topic next week and, if the vaccine is given an emergency use authorization for that age group, it will move on to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before it becomes available to the public.
The Biden administration announced that it has enough of the vaccine for 28 million children between the ages of 5 and 11. Those vaccines will be administered by more than 25,000 pediatric and primary care providers, at least 100 vaccination clinics, tens of thousands of pharmacies, and hundreds of schools and community health centers.
"I'm really, really hopeful that, with the beginning of vaccination of children 5 to 11, it will help curb some of the infections we are seeing in kids," Fisher says. "As soon as we get a vaccine for the 6-month to 4-year segment, we will really start seeing an improvement in the number of children who get COVID."
As we approach the holiday season, experts recommend being mindful of the unvaccinated younger ones in your household. The CDC has released guidance on how to safely gather for the holidays, stressing the importance of masking for those who are unvaccinated and masking up indoors if you're in an area where the spread of COVID-19 is substantial or high, even if you are vaccinated. Outdoor gatherings are also safer than indoor ones, the CDC says, although that can be tricky to pull off as the weather turns cooler.
As for holiday travel, Fisher recommends that families do a risk-benefit analysis of how much they actually need to travel. "I'm still seeing families that are traveling across the country and getting COVID," she says. "It is still a risk, especially if your children are not vaccinated." And, if you're planning to travel to an area where vaccination rates are low, Fisher recommends reconsidering them and waiting until your children are vaccinated to make the journey. (You can look up that data on the CDC's website by state and county.)
"Continued masks and distancing may be needed for everyone regardless of vaccination status based on community transmission levels and specific activities due to the risk of breakthrough infection and to prevent future surges," Weatherhead says. "Additionally, all eligible older children and adults should receive the COVID-19 vaccines to help protect younger children until vaccines are available."
Overall, Watkins recommends that families continue to follow the same safety precautions during the holidays that they have since the pandemic began: "Continue mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and limit indoor activities outside of the home."
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