Pediatric hospitals across Canada are coping with record-high numbers of children being admitted in the wake of the Omicron wave sweeping the country.
According to experts, kids under five are more likely to be hospitalized compared with other age groups since they are not eligible for vaccines yet, and may experience symptoms that are different from those found in adults.
Omicron cases in infants under one year of age are almost seven times more likely to lead to hospitalizations, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Friday,
According to Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist in Québec, high levels of community spread are happening now and a lot of the children coming to hospitals for screening have contracted COVID-19 incidentally.
Hospitalizations may have increased among children compared with previous waves, but right now they are low overall, comprising less than one per cent of total reported cases in children under five years of age.
No matter what respiratory virus infants get, they are likely to be more severely affected than adults, Tam said.
How does Omicron impact infants?
Symptoms of COVID-19 can vary from person to person, within different age groups, and depending on the variant, but Papenburg said that, like adults, children under the age of five can go from completely asymptomatic to having mild symptoms.
Some of the more commonly reported symptoms include new or worsening cough, shortness of breath, feeling feverish, and chills.
In an interview with Global News, Papenburg explained that Omicron in very young children gets to their airways, whereas in adults the deeper lung tissues are affected.
“In young babies especially, if they have a lot of secretions, those secretions can block the lower airways and cause what we call bronchiolitis. And some kids are getting bronchiolitis due to their COVID-19 infection, especially children less than one year of age,” Papenbrug said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in young children and infants. It causes inflammation and congestion in the small airways of the lung.
Bronchiolitis starts out with symptoms similar to those of the common cold, but then progresses to coughing, wheezing, and sometimes difficulty breathing.
“The small airways in the lungs are very small in young children, so it doesn’t take much mucus to block it up. And then they run into difficulty with their breathing and require assistance, either in terms of oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation,” Papenburg said.
He said the virus, which causes this condition, the respiratory syncytial virus is the number one cause of admission to hospitals for infants. It’s something COVID-19 can trigger.
Unlike adults, infants and children can experience an infrequent complication of COVID-19 infection identified as a multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the syndrome is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs.
“It’s a post-infectious phenomenon that occurs typically somewhere between two to six weeks after what is typically seen as a very benign COVID infection,” Papenburg said.
“So these children can get very sick, very fast,” he added.
He said, so far, there haven’t been any deaths reported in pediatrics due to this condition, adding that hospitals have anti-inflammatory medications that work very well to help with this hyper-inflammatory state.
How to prevent severe illness in babies?
To protect children under the age of five who are not eligible for vaccines, Dr. Tam said adults around them need to up their game by protecting themselves through vaccination and masking.
Currently, Tam said there are still millions more Canadians that need to get vaccines. According to official data, over 6.7 million eligible people still need a first or second dose of their primary series.
She also stressed the importance of getting vaccinated while pregnant.
“Research shows that vaccination during pregnancy triggers the development of protective antibodies that can also be passed on to that young infant,” she said.
Papenburg said “parents should be concerned” because there can be severe outcomes with regards to COVID-19 in children.
“But thankfully these outcomes are much less frequent than we see in an adult population,” he said. “Even though there’s massive community transmission, we’re seeing hospitalizations, but less hospitalizations than we would see during peak respiratory … virus season for children.”
Papenburg also pointed out pediatric infectious disease specialists like himself are seeing more hospitalizations due to influenza than COVID-19 among children.
“I think the message is if you have a child that’s sick for whatever reason, whether you think it might be COVID or for another reason, we have the ability to take care of that child and our emergency room is open. Our wards are open. Our intensive rooms are open and functioning,” he said.