After months of treating older patients at the start of the pandemic, many doctors now say they’re seeing a worrying shift: Younger people now make up the biggest group of newly hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and many appear sicker than what was seen during previous waves.
The CDC says people ages 18 to 49 make up the largest demographic of those hospitalized with the virus, likely due to the fact that vaccine uptake has been high among those over 65, a group very vulnerable to severe illness.
Kaiser Permanente San Diego’s Chief of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Adam Schwartz, told NBC 7 there’s a common denominator between the cases requiring hospitalization.
“Almost every single case that is sick, meaning, needs a ventilator and is critically ill, is unvaccinated,” he said. "It's just chaos with COVID… I've never seen this."
He said he’s seen more cases in toddlers and pediatric patients in general and a “significant amount is being spread by those under 50,” he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says over 4 million children in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but health experts say that number is likely much higher because children are often asymptomatic or their cases are so mild they’re not even tested.
Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at San Diego’s Rady Children’s Hospital told NBC 7 while it’s extremely rare for children to die from symptoms of COVID-19, they can still be hospitalized and suffer long-term effects after recovering from the virus.
“This virus is unique in its ability to infect perfectly healthy people with strong immune systems. Adolescents do end up in the hospital,” he said. “We've had many at Rady Children's over the last six months, we've had many in the intensive care unit as well so that's just another part of the vaccine risk and benefit equation that parents have to think about.”
Less than 30% of 12 to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated – the lowest number for any group eligible for the shot.
“The medical profession in general is a little frustrated with our current situation,” said Dr. Sawyer. “We had a stubborn group of people who were choosing not to get vaccinated and now we're sort of paying the price for that. We could have prevented that had everybody been immunized over the last six months -- everyone who could have been.”
As many states drop pandemic precautions, the Delta variant and other more dangerous strains of the virus continue to spread among the younger population, which remains the most vulnerable as children 12 years old and younger are still not eligible for any COVID-19 vaccine yet.
Dr. Sawyer said he fears case numbers in children will only rise as more return to the classroom.
“Schools have really done a good job of instituting all of the measures that we know will reduce the transmission of COVID-19, but I do expect to see more kids in the hospital. I'm hopeful that the spike in overall cases is not as high as it was this winter, but we might end up there again because of the Delta virus,” said Dr. Sawyer. “This is not just a pediatric issue, it's a whole community issue. We need everybody to get vaccinated now.”
Drs. Schwartz and Sawyer both told NBC 7 the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks.
“It's difficult to see people getting put on ventilators that probably could have been prevented by a vaccine,” Dr. Schwartz said, adding that the surge in COVID-19, as well as general emergency cases, is stretching the health care system’s resources nationwide.
“Over the last month, regular emergency medicine volume has greatly increased. People have been putting off some of their health care management and now they’re ready, but we’re also seeing another wave of the pandemic,” Dr. Schwartz said. “We're more ready than we were a year ago, but if we keep up this volume of COVID, the system gets so overwhelmed that we can't take care of the heart attacks that try to come in because there's just too much.”
The Food and Drug Administration is aiming to give full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine by early September, according to The New York Times.
Dr. Sawyer said the best way to protect kids under 12 years old, currently ineligible to get vaccinated, is for everyone else in the household who is eligible to get the vaccine.
Vaccinations for COVID-19 have decreased with an average of around 750,000 vaccinations daily this week compared to over 3.9 million at the peak of vaccination. About 69% of U.S. adults currently have at least one vaccine dose.
In an interview with McClatchy Wednesday, Chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. could see up to 200,000 daily COVID-19 cases in the fall as cases surge while health officials struggle to convince more Americans to get vaccinated, adding he is concerned the high number of unvaccinated people could lead to a stronger variant emerging that could combat the vaccines already given out.