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Polk County officials urge more Iowans to vaccinate their children amid rising COVID hospitalizations

Natalie Krebs
Joel Waddell, an pediatric infectious disease specialist at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, said the hospital has seen a 330 percent jump in kids hospitalized with COVID-19 since October.

Polk County health officials are urging more people to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, as they’re reporting a large increase in children hospitalized with the virus.

Joel Waddell is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, said while children are still unlikely to be hospitalized for COVID, the number of children hospitalized at Blank's has jumped 330 percent from October to this point in January.

That number is expected to pass 400 percent once January's numbers are complete, he said.

Waddell said about 94 percent of children hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated.

"Also of note, we have never had a child hospitalized in this timeframe, who has required ICU care or being on a ventilator who has been vaccinated," he said at a press conference on Tuesday.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized children ages 5 and older to receive the Pfizer vaccine, while children 12 and older are authorized to receive the booster dose 5 months after their second initial dose.

Waddell said the hospital is seeing some children who are under 5 and ineligible to receive the vaccine.

"But a large number of them are 5 years or older, and these hospitalizations could have potentially been prevented," he said.

Waddell said the hospital has also seen an increase in infants and newborns with COVID, driven largely by unvaccinated mothers.

"Some of these neonates or infants under a month of age have even required to be on the ventilator. And most of them got it secondary to their mothers having COVID At the time of delivery," he said.

"We have also seen an increase in cases of children born to COVID positive mothers and the vast majority of them are unvaccinated."

According to the most recent state numbers, just 18 percent of children ages 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, while 44 percent of 12 to 15-year-olds and 48 percent of 16 and 17-year-olds are.

Waddell said other than being unvaccinated, risk factors that put kids at a higher risk for being hospitalized are similar to adult's, including obesity, cancer and other immunodeficiencies.

He said some parents said they're hesitant to vaccinate their children due a risk of myocarditis, or the inflammation of the heart, after getting the shot.

But he noted that the risk for getting the condition is much higher in children who have contracted COVID — more than six times higher for males and more than 50 times higher for females.

Waddell said children are also at risk of getting multi system inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, which can cause the immune system to attack multiple organs. It's unknown what causes MIS-C, but the condition is known to affect kids with COVID.

Waddell said all children hospitalized at Blank's with MIS-C have been unvaccinated.

The increase in children's hospitalizations comes as the state is seeing an overall surge in new infections and hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant.

State officials reported Monday that 935 Iowans are hospitalized with the virus with a 14-day test positivity rate of 25.3 percent, the highest the state has ever seen.

On Tuesday, Polk County Board of Supervisors Chair Angela Connolly said the county's seven-day test positivity rate is at 35.8 percent, averaging 888 new cases a day.

Joshua Akers, the Polk County medical examiner, the number of younger people dying from the virus is increasing.

He said that in 2020, 10 percent of COVID deaths in the county were among people under 60. That number increased to 21 percent in 2021.

"Already in January of this year, we have seen 24 percent of our COVID deaths under the age 60," he said. "The vast majority of these of these deaths are either unvaccinated or have not received a booster dose.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter