The Delta variant is now landing more kids in the hospital than at nearly any other point in the COVID-19 pandemic. On average, 203 kids are being hospitalized each day compared to 217 per day during the peak in January, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. Meaning? “The evidence seems to be tipping that [Delta’s] certainly causing more severe illness in children, due to the numbers of kids being hospitalized, more so than we’d ever seen previously during the pandemic,” says Stanley Spinner, MD, Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
For evidence, many are looking to hospitals and ICUs that are overwhelmed by sick kids, particularly in hotspots such as Texas, Florida, and Louisiana. But COVID cases in kids are skyrocketing across the country, including an 84 percent increase in cases week to week in late July. Last week, nearly 94,000 kids came down with COVID.
Delta is much, much more contagious than any previous variant. But is it also more likely to make them really sick or to kill them? Because if that’s the case, that changes all the risk calculations parents have gotten used to making over the past year or so.
Many experts are still watching and waiting. But plenty are sounding the alarm, because it seems like Delta may be more serious for kids than other variants. Here’s what we know.
Is the Delta Variant Deadlier for Kids?
There is no hard evidence about whether Delta causes more severe disease in kids, or whether it is more likely to kill kids or adults than other COVID variants. Part of the reason why is that it’s difficult to tease apart transmissibility and virulence, or COVID’s ability to make a person really sick.
Although more people are getting severely ill with COVID right now compared to earlier in the summer, it’s unclear whether that’s solely because there are more people getting COVID overall or if Delta is also more likely to make them severely sick, says Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center and an infectious disease specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
For this reason, Offit isn’t willing to guess if Delta is more virulent. Many experts are taking the same cautious, but reasonable, approach. Others, however, are ready to speculate that Delta is causing more severe disease than previous variants.
Delta’s contagiousness is definitely part of the reason why COVID is landing so many kids in the hospital, but Spinner says it doesn’t entirely explain the number of sick kids he’s seeing. “There’s more to it than just the transmissibility,” he says.
Spinner isn’t the only expert who has expressed this. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, told CNN that the evidence is “tipping” toward Delta being more virulent. David Kimberlin, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases, told MedPage Today, “while we don’t know if those data apply to children, the anecdotal information suggests it might.” And an internal CDC document reported on by The Washington Post said that Delta “likely” causes more severe illness.
Some amount of evidence backs up this speculation, such as research from Scotland that found that Delta leads to hospitalization at twice the rate of the Alpha variant. Additional research from Canada, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows that Delta is landing more people in the hospital.
However, the available evidence is still not enough to convince many experts. And in the UK, which faced Delta before the variant became common in the U.S., kids didn’t seem to get sicker than before, Elizabeth Whittaker, a pediatric infectious disease and immunology specialist at Imperial College London, told the New York Times.
No Matter What, Delta Is More Dangerous
One thing is certain, and it’s that Delta is more contagious than any other COVID variant. Experts estimate that it’s 40 to 60 percent more transmissible than the Alpha variant and nearly twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus.
Because Delta is so contagious and so many adults and kids are unvaccinated, many of them are getting sick. So even if Delta isn’t more deadly, it can still cause lots of people to come down with severe disease simply because of how many people it’s infecting.
Hospitals are filling up. People with COVID and other life-threatening conditions in places with high COVID rates are having trouble getting the emergency care they need. Last week in Florida, patients occupied 84 percent of inpatient beds and 86.5 percent of ICU beds. One emergency room doctor in southeast Texas spent hours searching for a bed for a 22-year-old COVID patient, to no avail. In Arkansas, only eight ICU beds remained available in the state on Monday.
So, although it very well may be, Delta doesn’t have to be more deadly to be dangerous.
COVID Risk for Kids Right Now
The COVID situation is not looking great for kids. “You have a confluence of several unfortunate events,” Offit says.
First, Delta is clearly more contagious, and it’s widespread in the U.S. Second, vaccines probably won’t be available for kids under age 12 before school starts. Third, we’re entering the fall and winter months, when people spend more time inside and the virus can do more damage. Fourth, people are taking less COVID precautions than they did this time last year.
“Those four factors contribute to the fact that I think children may well have a difficult school year,” Offit says. “Then you have governors, like Governor Santis or Governor Abbott, who prohibit mask mandates. Those people are like friends of the virus. Friends of COVID-19.”
“I would feel very uncomfortable sending my child to school without knowing that everyone was masked, and without knowing that all teachers were vaccinated,” Offit says.