Adolescent COVID hospitalizations: Risk ‘very low,’ doctor says other reasons to vaccinate youth remain

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Public health doc: Vaccinated youth protect vulnerable adults, can skip quarantine if exposed

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Even if parents aren’t swayed by COVID hospitalization risks for children and youth, plenty of good reasons to vaccinate remain — with the protection of others foremost, a public health doctor said Friday.

A CDC study released June 4 drew wide media attention for data showing a recent increase in hospitalizations among adolescents.

“We have seen hospitalizations in that age group but they’ve been a very, very low percentage of the persons requiring hospitalization,” Sullivan County Regional Health Office Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said Friday.

In Sullivan County, 2,005 people aged 11-20 have contracted COVID since March 2020. Eight have been hospitalized and only one of those has occurred in 2021 (in March). That’s a rate of 1 in 251.

Statewide figures are similar, with 1 in 333 11 to 20-year-olds who contracted COVID being hospitalized over the duration of the pandemic. That’s a total of 334 people.

Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) statewide data reviewed by News Channel 11 show that from March 2020 through November, just under one half of 1 percent of 11 to 20-year-olds were hospitalized as a result of COVID-19.

That represents 1 out of every 208 people. From December through February, that dropped to 0.13 percent — 1 of every 769 cases.

Between March and the middle of this week, it rose to 0.2%, or roughly one out of every 500. In raw numbers, there were 62 people in that age group hospitalized from December through February, out of 47,569 cases, and another 28 out of 13,816 cases the past three months.

Hospitalizations among 11 to 20-year-olds with COVID

December through February: 0.13% of cases (1 in 769)

March through early June: 0.20% of cases (1 in 494)

That’s still a risk, May said. And a very small portion of childhood cases result in MIS-C, or Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome.

“It’s a delayed autoimmune reaction to having COVID infection,” he said, adding that those who get it “tend to be very sick for a protracted period of time.”

On the vaccination front itself, progress varies widely across Northeast Tennessee in the 12 to 15-year-old age group — the most recent to be approved for vaccinations, with the first area shots being administered May 12.

As of Thursday, Washington County had a significantly higher percentage of people in that age category with at least one dose than even the second-highest county — 17.1 percent to Sullivan County’s 12.3 percent.

Washington County’s rate was three times higher than those in Hawkins (5.7 percent) and Johnson (5.0 percent) counties. It was more than double the rates in Carter and Greene counties.

May said while risks to children from the disease are low, another risk stems from children who aren’t vaccinated: transmission to others who are more vulnerable.

“They are also very, very efficient spreaders of disease and they can spread this to those who are at higher risk, or even those who are immunocompromised who may be vaccinated but still vulnerable,” May said.

If that doesn’t sway parents or guardians, there’s another incentive that may affect them more directly.

In most cases, May said, schools and sports teams will continue requiring 14-day quarantine periods for people with a known exposure to a COVID case — but only for the unvaccinated.

Once a kid has seen two weeks pass after their final dose, it’s a different story.

“Those who are post-two weeks vaccination, they are considered immune and do not have to be quarantined although we still monitor them for illness,” May said.

The biggest incentive, he said, should still be about others — and about potential future risks from variant strains. The B1.17 “UK” variant may not have devastated people under 20 health-wise, but it was 40 percent more effective at spreading from person to person.

Now, the “Delta” variant — B1617.2 — that started in India has been shown to be 40 percent more transmissible than the UK one. May said it’s become the dominant strain in Britain, and Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday it currently accounts for about 6 percent of U.S. infections.

With COVID still present, event at a very low level, “that means you’ve got something that is probably 100 percent more effective at transmission (than the original strain),” May said.

“And we do know that with disease transmission overall 4.6 percent of the population … in Sullivan County … will wind up in a hospital and we know that 1.8 percent will die.” 

The fact that 1 out of Sullivan County’s 474 adolescent COVID cases since March 1 of this year was hospitalized may represent enough risk for some parents to pull the trigger on the jab.

“Let’s be straight up, that there is a risk, albeit low, for hospitalization and serious complication of MIS-C in children,” May said.

“But one of the biggest reasons is to prevent quarantine, and (also) having … them be the great spreaders of the disease to those who are still at risk or immunocompromised and may not be protected with the vaccine — and those are very important reasons.” 

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