Vaccination rates for children ages 5 to 11 years in the United States remain below 20%, the CDC reports. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Nearly 700 children age 17 years and younger in the United States are being hospitalized daily due to COVID-19, according to figures released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This is more than twice the rate of hospitalizations seen in this age group in September, which was the height of the wave fueled by the Delta variant and coincided with the reopening of schools for in-person learning across the country, the agency said.
Much of this increase is due to rise in the hospitalization rate among children age 4 years and younger, who are being admitted to medical centers at a rate of 4.3 cases per 100,000 people in the general population, the data showed.
Although this is about one-third of the hospitalization rate seen in people age 65 years and older, it is still the highest it has been since the start of the pandemic, CDC director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said Friday during a call with reporters.
"Children still have lowest hospitalization rates of any age group, but they are higher now than they've ever been since the start of the pandemic," Walensky said.
However, "hospitalization rates have increased for people of all ages" since the rise of the Omicron variant, which spreads more rapidly than earlier strains, she said.
In the case of children, the rise in hospitalizations be the result of their being admitted to the hospital for other reasons and testing positive once there.
"We have no evidence Omicron causes increased [disease] severity in this age group yet," she said.
None of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines -- from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech -- have been cleared for use in children age 4 and younger.
Still, the agency said it is safe to keep schools and day care centers open, even as the highly transmissible Omicron variant continues to spread across the country, provided mitigation approaches are used.
This includes mask-wearing by children and staff, improved facility ventilation and "surrounding [children] with people who are vaccinated in schools, day care and at home," Walensky said.
"Vaccination is the best tool we have to protect children from COVID-19," she said.
Just over 50% of children nationally have been fully vaccinated, meaning they have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one cleared for use in this age group, based on CDC data.
Among children ages 5 to 11, 16% have been vaccinated, the agency said.
This week, the CDC amended its vaccination guidance to recommend booster doses for people age 12 to 17 at least five months after receipt of their second dose.
Booster doses have also been recommended for children ages 5 to 11 who are "immunocompromised," or have weakened immune systems, due to chronic health conditions, Walensky said.
Data released in September indicate that hospitalization rates among unvaccinated children age 17 and younger are 11 times higher than they are in those who are vaccinated.
For older children, the agency continues to recommend masking, as well as a "test-to-stay" strategy for schools, Walensky added.
This strategy "includes promoting vaccination of eligible students and staff, requiring everyone age 2 years and older wear a mask inside schools and facilities, keeping at least 3 feet of distance between students, screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and staying home when sick."
Under the test-to-stay approach, close contacts of confirmed cases of COVID-19 are allowed to stay in school provided both the infected person and close contact were masked when an exposure might have occurred.
"Many parents have concerns about the Omicron variant, and many schools have returned to remote learning," Walensky said.
"Test-to-stay provides [framework] for schools to reopen and keep them open for the rest of the school year."