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There is a small list of things Richmond, Texas mom Vanessa Lui promised her daughter Zoe they could do after the third grader got her COVID-19 vaccine.
A visit to Barnes & Noble. An afternoon at the local museum.
Going back to school in person is also on the list, but schoolwork isn’t really what Zoe misses after going to school completely online for the past year and a half.
“I’ve only missed my friends because I don’t really like working, it’s kind of annoying,” the 8-year-old told The Texas Tribune in an interview. “Sometimes we played in the break and we went down the slide.”
That’s why she was one of the first Texas children in her age group to roll up her sleeve and get vaccinated against COVID-19 last November, along with her mother, her aunt and her cousin at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston after the Pfizer shot for children. from 5-11 is approved by the federal government.
Since then, 693,345 elementary school-age children in Texas have received at least one dose of the vaccine, accounting for about 24% of the state’s 2.9 million children ages 5-11 — and a figure that matches the national rate. Nearly 390,000 of the 5-11 group are fully vaccinated, while more than half of Texas teens ages 12-15 are fully vaccinated.
The childhood vaccination rate in Texas is higher than in many other southern states, where rates as low as 10% are recorded. In the first two weeks after the injection was approved for emergency use in the younger age group, about 100,000 children came to school clinics, pharmacies and pediatricians in Texas to get vaccinated.
Zoe was one of them.
“As a family, we were excited,” said Lui. “We need more parents, not fewer parents, to lead the way.”
But as the ommicron strain of COVID-19 drives up more cases than ever recorded in Texas during the pandemic, Zoe is still waiting to go back to school. She continues to take her classes online while her mother makes her wait for the staff to stop calling in sick and cause students to switch teachers and classes frequently.
As omicron rampages through the unvaccinated community, children with COVID-19 are popping up in record numbers in hospitals and pediatric practices.
Some pediatricians have been forced to close for a few days because most of their staff were ill, forcing parents to reschedule appointments or seek new primary care physicians for common winter illnesses such as the flu or other non-COVID infections.
“They called us and said, ‘We have to cancel your appointment today. None of the staff can make it,” said Houston communications professional Evan Mintz, who had to reschedule an appointment for his young daughter over the holidays. day delay, and that’s not bad in the grand scheme of things. But still it was a shock to us. It hit us directly.”
Frisco pediatrician Seth Kaplan has managed to stay open but had to temporarily stop accepting new patients, he said.
“It just has to be overwhelming,” he said.
Omicron affects just like children get vaccines
At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, positive patient cases went from zero in early December to about 70 patients with COVID-19 a month later, mostly among unvaccinated children, said Dr. Jim Versalovic, the study’s chief pathologist. Hopital. Their hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 broke all previous pandemic records, and at breakneck speed, he said. Just weeks after omicron was first discovered in Texas, it caused more than 90% of new cases in his hospital — less than a month after the vaccine was approved for young children.
“We have staggering numbers here during this global microwave,” Versalovic said at a news conference in early January.
That same day, the state broke its own record of children hospitalized with COVID-19, reporting 350 — five more than the previous peak a few months earlier.
On Friday, the state health department released data on 3.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the first two years of the pandemic. Nearly 19 percent of them – 722,393 – were diagnosed in residents under the age of 20. The demographics do not include cases reported in 2022.
In the first week of January, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Education Agency reported that about 26,500 students and 11,800 staff members were infected with COVID, according to data released Friday.
While student cases are approaching levels not seen since school started last fall, there are more cases of COVID-19 among staff than at any other time in the pandemic. The numbers are likely to increase as more districts report their numbers to the state. Current numbers include only about half of all of the state’s 1,200 counties, and the number of counties reporting numbers is inconsistent from week to week.
Meanwhile, the state reported 471 children in Texas hospitals with COVID-19 on Wednesday. Most of them have not been vaccinated, hospital officials said. But there is no state data indicating how many COVID-19 pediatric patients are in Texas pediatric intensive care units.
Versalovic said fewer of his COVID-19 patients in the age group of 5-11 end up in the ICU compared to previous spikes because they can be vaccinated.
Children under 5, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, are still going to the ICU at the same rate as previous peaks, he said. One in three hospitalizations of patients with COVID-19 at Texas Children’s were under age 5, Versalovic said.
They show up with severe lung infections, similar to what they might get with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a more common respiratory disease in children.
Versolavic cautioned not to assume that omicron is less severe for children, even though it appears to be less severe than delta for adults.
“It’s something we’re going to keep a close eye on,” he said. “We have no hard evidence that the disease is more serious” [in children] with ommicron than with delta, at the moment… But we can’t say this is milder for kids because frankly it’s early. And we just need some time to keep following and seeing these kids.”
There are now more ICU beds available for all young patients than were available a few months ago, in part because the state is no longer in an unusual and simultaneous wave of RSV and flu, as it is during the summer, so those patients aren’t consuming as much anymore beds, Versalovic said.
Some of the hospitalized children in the COVID-19 count tested positive for the virus during routine screening after showing up in the hospital for something else, Versalovic said, but identifying the difference can be complicated when co-morbidities are involved are.
The state does not require hospitals to report which cases are caused by COVID-19 and which are incidental, and not the reason the person was hospitalized.
“What I can say is that as we examine the data in real time, it is clear that most cases have COVID-19 as a primary factor or as a major contributing factor to their hospitalization,” he said. “That said, we obviously need to keep studying this to see if we can get some firmer numbers on that.”
Less severe cases
There are some encouraging comments this time, Versalovic said.
“We have learned a lot during this pandemic and we are in a much better position in January than we were in January last year with vaccinations,” he said.
The possibility that omicron may be less severe than its predecessors is causing children not to be vaccinated, as their parents feel it may not be necessary to vaccinate their children right away, said vaccine expert Dr. Peter Hotez, a virologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. .
It’s an idea that puts children at real risk of long-term complications from COVID-19.
Recent studies from London show that: one in seven children who have severe or chronic symptoms with COVID for a long time, also known as ‘prolonged COVID’. a more recent one CDC investigation pointed to an increased risk of diabetes in infected children.
“Parents don’t rush to vaccinate their younger children,” Hotez said. “I think the problem is that the federal government, and certainly the state government, hasn’t argued enough why children should be vaccinated. I think people focus a lot on the low death rates, but the way I look at it, mortality is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to teething problems with COVID.”
Zoe Lui, for her part, said she was proud as a young person to do what she can to protect herself and her community. And her mother is proud of her.
“I just had that theme, ‘This is your chance,’ running through my head the whole time she got it,” said Vanessa Lui. “It was sweet. It was really sweet.”
Kaplan, Frisco’s pediatrician, said that while childhood vaccination rates could be higher, he hopes this will improve.
“I’ve never heard so much ‘thank you’ as in the past few weeks,” he said. “They really feel a huge, palpable sense of relief that they can finally do this for their kids.”
Mandi Cai contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Texas Children’s Hospital is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, unbiased news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.