Data on pediatric COVID-19 deaths in US remains unclear

UK researchers say the majority of deaths involved cases of underlying conditions

Health officials in some areas of the country have sounded the alarm over increasing rates of hospitalizations among pediatric COVID-19 patients, but whether the risk for this population has changed due to emerging variants like delta remains unclear. 

"Since the delta variant is more contagious than the original virus, more kids will become infected if other layers of protection aren't in place," Dr. Kristen Navarette, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and medical director at MVP Health Care, told Fox News. "Now is the time to continue masking, sticking to outdoor activities, staying with your pod and social distancing. A small percentage of children have been hospitalized with COVID-19. As more kids become infected with the delta variant, we anticipate the number of children being hospitalized to increase." 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 337 pediatric COVID-19 related deaths since the pandemic began, but an in-depth analysis – like one that’s taken place in England – has not occurred. 

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The England data found the overall risk for children becoming severely ill or dying due to the virus is extremely low, with the researchers, who hail from several universities, noting that most fatalities involving young people occurred in those with underlying health conditions. 

Data published through July 22 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) which included reports from 43 states, New York City, Puerto Rico and Guam, indicated that children accounted for 0.00-0.26% of all COVID-19 deaths, with eight states reporting zero fatalities. 

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Still, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited concerning data involving the delta variant in advising that universal mask mandates be in place for K-12 schools, where the majority of the student population has not been vaccinated. The U.S. has not authorized any of the COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 12, and only about 30% of adolescents ages 12-17 have received one. 

Parents opposed to mandates cite the low death rate in kids, but one pediatrician warned that the data may not be telling the whole story. 

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"Although this number is relatively low, there are still a significant number of kids being hospitalized," Dr. Steven Abelowitz, MD, FAAP, regional director of Coastal Kids Pediatrics, told Fox News. "And the amount of deaths in children is not insignificant. In other words, to date there are more than twice the amount of child deaths from COVID-19 than from the flu since the beginning of the pandemic."

The delta variant, which behaves drastically different than other strains of coronavirus, is peaking particularly among areas with low vaccination rates, and at a time when schools are preparing to welcome students back for in-person learning. 

Navarette noted that it's not yet clear how the delta variant may impact kids in the long term. 

"Because this is such a new virus, we are still learning about how the delta variant affects kids, including if it causes more severe disease and deaths than the original virus strain," she said. 

The variant is not just hitting the unvaccinated, both the CDC and federal officials have warned, with breakthrough cases occurring in increasing numbers as well. This could be a result of vaccinated people increasing their social activities, several experts told Fox News. Still, among vaccinated individuals, severe illness remains rare due to vaccine efficacy. 

A former CDC official noted that the virus’ behavior may not be well documented in children. 

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"Because we’re not testing children as much, we’re not sure that we have really good reliable data on how many deaths, hospitalizations, so forth are occurring in that group," Dr. Robert Amler, dean of School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College, and a former chief medical officer at the CDC Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told Fox News. "Remember, every child, every adult who gets infected with the virus gives the virus an opportunity to grow more and mutate again to other strains. The additional cases that are occurring are giving the virus a chance to continue to develop new strains and grow and see if it can do something else." 

Abelowitz, who noted that there are some concerns about students returning to school amid low vaccination numbers, said the benefits of in-person learning outweigh the risk of not reopening. He also said he expects the percentage of teens seeking vaccines to rise in the coming weeks. 

Amler agreed that getting kids back to school is important – as is keeping them safe which means for younger kids, "wearing masks is the best protection." He also called for everyone surrounding the younger kids to be vaccinated "as much as possible." 

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"The message is clear – the vaccine is far, far more safe in providing immunity than taking the chance that your child could get infected and could have bad side effects from the infection," Amler said. "It’s far, far safer than wild or natural infection, and parents should take every opportunity to get their child vaccinated."