Yet the escalating crisis has had little political impact so far, even in the southeastern states where Delta is hardest hit. Most of the GOP governors and state officials who have banned vaccination warrants, mask requirements and other public health tools to fight Covid-19 are sticking to these policies. The unprecedented wave of infections among children has also not significantly moved parents of school-aged children; nearly 60% said they oppose the imposition of gunfire on children who attend school in person, according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. And nearly 70% of Republican parents told pollsters they continued to oppose school mask mandates.
Faced with this inaction, doctors and health officials are struggling to cope with the growing number of sick children.
“We have problems pretty evenly everywhere,” said Mark Wietecha, CEO of the Children’s Hospital Association. “Most of the intensive care units in our children’s hospitals, if they’re not near full capacity, they’re at full capacity. We have children in the emergency room on stretchers.
When Covid infections increased in adults last year, hospitals delayed elective procedures, requisitioned beds normally used for other patients, and brought in temporary staff from other states. Many facilities are returning to these tactics with a further increase in adult cases. But most of these strategies are difficult or impossible to apply to treating children, Wietecha said. Pediatric patients need specialized staff and equipment – and for them, virtually no procedure is elective.
Even as pediatric cases increase, doctors and scientists say there is not enough evidence to determine whether Delta is making children sicker than previous variants of Covid. The overwhelming majority of children who contract the virus do not require hospitalization, and pediatric deaths still represent less than one-tenth of one percent of all pandemic deaths, according to the CDC. Although states normally take longer to investigate pediatric deaths, creating a lag in this data, this is not enough to significantly change the overall conclusion that Covid-19 remains much more dangerous for adults.
Yet health professionals are increasingly concerned that more children will present themselves in a worse condition than at any time during the pandemic. And children’s hospitals were already struggling in early 2021 – having lost staff and space as states rushed to deal with previous increases in Covid among adults, leaving facilities for children unable to handle even a small increase in pediatric cases.
“We’re crowded in New York, we’re crowded in Chicago, we’re crowded in Denver, Los Angeles, Houston, Texas, Miami. You can go around the horn, ”said Wietecha. “They’re full, all the beds, and we don’t normally have any in August. “
Conditions are worse in rural states like Arkansas and Mississippi, where there is often only one large children’s hospital, vaccination rates for adults and teens are low, and back to school has already started. fueled epidemics. Children’s hospitals are stretched to breaking point, according to Jose Romero, Arkansas health secretary, who said his state is “an indicator, if you will, of what’s happening to other states.”
Patients at Mississippi Children’s Hospital in Jackson often have to wait hours in the emergency room for a bed to become available because the facility has suffered from cases of RSV and coronavirus. In recent days, the hospital has received between 13 and 16 children with Covid at any one time – about double the number it saw during the January peak, Pediatrics President Mary Taylor said.
She said people are wrong to assume that Delta is not a threat to children, especially if they are in overcrowded schools without masks.
“It’s misleading because in the first round there were children without any symptoms,” she said. “Now they’re more symptomatic and at a much greater risk of spreading it and they seem to be getting sicker. “
Most hospitalized children are not vaccinated because injections are only available for people 12 years of age and older. In a letter to the FDA last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics pleaded with the agency to act faster to authorize Covid-19 vaccines for children 11 and under. The organization’s own monitoring shows that the number of new infections in children nearly doubled between the last week of July and the first week of August, topping 71,000. week to week since the start of the pandemic.
“We all hold our breath as school begins because we know schools can be a place where respiratory viruses take off like wildfire,” said Buddy Creech, chair of the pediatrics department at Vanderbilt University Medical Center , whose children’s hospital is experiencing record admissions. .
Some hospital systems and provider groups are begging schools to implement mask requirements to stem the tide of cases. Arkansas Children’s Hospital joined other hospitals and medical organizations on Tuesday in a letter asking all schools in the state to require masks for everyone, regardless of immunization status – what school districts can do because a judge blocked the state’s ban on mask requirements.
“As for hospitalizations right now, around 19% of our cases are teenagers, which is higher than it was when the virus first emerged,” the Republican governor said. ‘Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, who signed the mask ban. but later said he regretted doing it. “This increase in the number of cases among adolescents is concerning, as it only takes a few more hospitalizations to make it really difficult for our children’s hospitals to provide adequate care.
Hutchinson said the Biden administration sent a federal team to Arkansas to assess its hospital capacity, make recommendations and provide resources, but he was concerned that was not enough.
“They have indicated that if we need more support they will make it available to us, but I know there are limits to that,” he said.
Yet even as infections increase and the capacity of children’s hospitals shrinks, few conservative policymakers reconsider their opposition to mask warrants and other measures, experts say, would make a difference in curbing the spread of the virus in schools.
“There is no need to require masks in schools at this time,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said on Monday, accusing the media and scientists of “exaggerating, hyperbole and dying. ‘unnecessarily alarming people’ about the threat to children.
McMaster and other GOP leaders have argued that the decision to wear a mask and get the shot should be up to every family, but many parents are also not convinced.
According to the new Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 20 percent of all parents and 40 percent of Republican parents say they “definitely won’t” get their children ages 12 to 17, who are currently eligible for vaccines, to be vaccinated. . And only a quarter of parents of children ages 5 to 11 said they would have their child vaccinated once federal regulators allowed it.
A separate poll conducted by Republican messaging specialist Frank Luntz and the health-focused Beaumont Foundation revealed a similar partisan division over compulsory vaccination for students, but showed that the recent spread of the Delta is forcing parents to reconsider the mask requirements. Almost 85% said Delta made them more likely to consider supporting a mask mandate in schools.
Still, pessimistic about a radical change in public behavior or state policy, hospitals are turning to the federal government for help, asking for more resources for children’s hospitals as part of the project. Democrats’ $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation law that could become law in early fall.
“We don’t have enough caregivers or beds,” said Wietecha, CEO of the Children’s Hospital Association. “We just don’t have surge capacity, as you can see right now. We won’t fix this overnight, but unless we start we will never fix it. “
Rachel Roubein contributed to this report.