Hospitals in Arkansas are filling up with coronavirus patients -- including children -- as the delta variant burns through the state's unvaccinated population.
Just 36.2 percent of the state's population is fully vaccinated, and children younger than 12 are not yet eligible to get the shots, and doctors are seeing far more children infected with COVID-19 than in previous waves of the pandemic, reported KUAR-FM.
"The delta variant is acting very, very differently with respect to kids," said Dr. Rick Barr, clinical and academic officer for Arkansas Children's Hospital. "Previously, when children were admitted and tested positive for COVID it was often what I call an incidental finding. They were coming in the hospital for some unrelated reason, maybe a surgery or some other medical condition, and they just happened to test positive and were asymptomatic, didn't have any symptoms from their COVID viral infection."
But that started to change last month, when children started coming to the hospital with respiratory infections and pneumonia, some of them requiring oxygen and assistance with breathing, and this month alone the hospital has seen more than 40 children -- and some of them have been placed in the intensive care unit.
"I have to emphasize, as well, that at least half of those children that we've admitted are over the age of 12, so [they're] eligible for a vaccine, and none -- zero -- had been fully vaccinated," Barr said. "So this is a preventable disease and we're highly encouraging parents to vaccinate. First of all, get vaccinated themselves, that's the best way to protect your children. But if your children are old enough to get a vaccine, get vaccinated themselves, and especially with school starting soon, it takes a little while for the vaccine to develop immunity against an infection, so time is of the essence and getting those vaccines in short order."
It's commonly believed that only children with underlying health conditions are at risk of developing severe COVID-19 infections, but Barr said that's not the case with the delta variant.
"We definitely know that kids with underlying medical conditions are more at risk of developing severe COVID infections," he said. "That's -- as in adults, that's clear. But we've seen a number of otherwise healthy children come into the children's hospital with COVID-19 infections and even end up in the ICU if they don't have any vaccine-induced immunity. So it's not just restricted to kids with underlying medical conditions."
To make matters worse, an overlapping surge of other respiratory illnesses typically seen in winter is further taxing hospital systems.
"This is on the backdrop of a very, very unusual viral respiratory season that we usually see in January, but we're seeing it in July," Barr said. "So, in addition to COVID-19, we're seeing a lot of respiratory syncytial virus, RSV infections, and other viruses causing kids to be sick and requiring admission to the hospital. So, you know, our month of July, we're going to be at an all-time high in terms of what we would normally see in July in terms of kids coming into the hospital, so it's just on top of a really, really serious time for kids."
COVID-19 patients require isolation rooms with special airflow to keep everyone else in the hospital safe, which further taxes staffers.
"Every day we're scrambling to modify rooms to make sure we can very safely take care of those children," Barr said, "but also protect other children in the hospital."