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New York officials warn of a rise in the number of kids being hospitalized for COVID

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The CDC has just issued new COVID safety guidance. That includes reducing the isolation period for those with COVID-19 from 10 days to five if they are asymptomatic. The CDC says the change comes from a recognition that the virus spreads most readily a few days before the onset of symptoms and two to three days after. The announcement comes as officials in New York state are warning of an alarming rise in the number of children hospitalized due to COVID infections. In New York City, the number of kids hospitalized because of the virus has surged nearly fivefold over the last two weeks as the omicron wave grows. NPR's Brian Mann is following this from upstate New York.

Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How many children are we talking about who are sick enough to require hospitalization?

MANN: Well, the latest count shows about 184 kids hospitalized across New York state - obviously really difficult and scary for these families, still a relatively small number. But what's really concerning health officials is the trend over the last 15 days. Here's Dr. Mary Bassett, New York state health commissioner, speaking this morning.

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MARY BASSETT: We've gone up two-and-a-half-fold, but New York City has gone up nearly fivefold. Many people thought - continue to think that children don't become infected with COVID. This is not true.

MANN: And the fear, obviously, is that as omicron continues to spread, we could see these serious cases among kids continue to surge. And total new infections in New York state, including adults, has - that's also risen dramatically, seeing more than 30,000 new cases a day.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of symptoms are these kids experiencing that makes it necessary for them to go to the hospital?

MANN: Yeah, I spoke about this today with Dr. Robert Posada. He's an expert on infectious diseases and children at Mount Sinai Health Systems in New York City. He says it's mostly high fevers and respiratory distress, Ari, these kids often struggling to breathe. And unfortunately, he thinks cases of kids being hospitalized will likely continue to grow, and not just in New York.

ROBERT POSADA: The omicron variant continues to spread. So these numbers that we're seeing right now in the New York area - I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing them in other parts of the country.

MANN: And Dr. Posada says this experience is really frightening for the children and the families who are coming in.

POSADA: Sometimes children cannot be accompanied by both parents, for example. Usually, it's only one person that can go in. And for that child, there's a lot of anxiety associated with hospital admission.

MANN: And these cases are also complicated by the fact that there's a lot less known about how COVID affects children. And there are fewer medical treatments approved to help them. And Dr. Posada - this is important - points out that none of the cases of kids being hospitalized across New York state - none of these involve children who've been fully vaccinated.

SHAPIRO: But a lot of these kids are old enough that they could be vaccinated. Are you saying parents just aren't taking advantage of that?

MANN: Yeah, that's right. New York's health commissioner, Dr. Bassett, talked about this today. They're really struggling to get parents to bring kids in for the jab. Fewer than 20% of eligible children are protected.

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BASSETT: What I hope parents do is protect their children who are eligible for vaccination by getting them vaccinated. Our vaccination rates in 5- to 11-year-olds remain disappointingly low.

MANN: And officials here say this is one of the reasons they're releasing these numbers - to try to get parents' attention, especially as kids get ready to head back to school after the holidays.

SHAPIRO: Are schools going to remain open for in-person learning, even as case counts and hospitalizations among kids grow up - go up?

MANN: Yeah, this is interesting. Right now Governor Kathy Hochul says she's fully committed to having children back in classrooms after the holidays. But when she was asked this question today by reporters, you could hear her kind of wrestling with how fast omicron is changing the landscape.

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KATHY HOCHUL: Subject to possible changes in the future. But right now, that is absolutely where our position is. It's unwavering on this date with respect to looking at a date of January 31 to get the children back to school.

MANN: Yeah. So you can hear there - right now they're saying they're fully committed, but things could change if these numbers - these kind of scary numbers with kids continue to rise. Hochul says they are also distributing more than 3 million test kits to school districts across New York state. They want to be able to track infections once kids are back in school. And really, Ari, what they're saying is that the harm done to kids by school closures is just so significant, they're going to try to keep these classrooms open.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Brian Mann in upstate New York.

Thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSES SUMNEY SONG, "COLOUOUR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.