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Hospitalization rates among children are at their highest since the pandemic start

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that hospitalization rates among children are now at their highest level since the start of the pandemic. This occurs at the same time hospitals struggle with staff and equipment shortages because of the omicron surge. We're joined now by Sadiqa Kendi. She is the division chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Boston Medical Center.

Dr. Kendi, thank you so much for being with us.

SADIQA KENDI: You're welcome.

SIMON: What do you see at your hospital right now?

KENDI: This surge has been unlike any that we've seen before, in that the numbers are so much higher. I mean, we saw the numbers shoot up much more quickly than we have in previous surges, and specifically in children. I mean, we are seeing a lot of children with COVID, and this is on top of the usual respiratory viruses that we see during this season.

SIMON: And how do you cope?

KENDI: The best we can, honestly. You know, I think all hospitals currently are just doing the best we can to ensure that we have the staffing to take care of patients. But we're also seeing that staff are actually being infected with COVID, and so that is an additional challenge in that it is causing staffing shortages on top of staffing shortages we already had from the previous surge. And so, you know, we have gotten creative about how to make sure we're fully staffed, how to make sure we're still able to provide the care that we'd like to provide. But it has definitely been challenging for hospitals all over the nation.

SIMON: How old or, for that matter, how young are the patients you're seeing?

KENDI: We've seen patients with COVID from newborn all the way up. I think the challenge is that during this surge, children are going to school. Children are around other people. And with the highly contagious nature of the omicron variant, we are just seeing the virus pass through children of all ages. Many times we're seeing multiple siblings who have it when it's in the household. And, of course, all of our children under 5 are unvaccinated. And so that means that they are at highest risk both for contracting this variant and also for needing to be hospitalized and getting serious illness.

SIMON: As I don't have to tell you, I'm sure, Dr. Kendi, earlier in the pandemic, there was a lot of worry over multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children - rare, but, of course, extremely serious. Is this also a worry with the omicron variant?

KENDI: I think we're still in that phase where we're seeing many children with acute symptoms. And so we'll see, I think, in the coming weeks whether or not we're seeing higher cases of MIS-C as well.

SIMON: I feel the need to ask you for practical advice. With the ways in which hospitals and doctors' offices and all medical facilities are just overworked right now, when should a parent bring their child to a hospital?

KENDI: My recommendation is always that when a parent is really worried that their child is ill, they should seek care. Now, that level of care can be different depending on what's going on. And I definitely think that, especially given the crowding that we're seeing in pediatric emergency departments recently, if your child is well and just needs a COVID test or is very mildly ill, like just has congestion or had an exposure and needs a test, the emergency department is definitely not the place to go to. You know, in that case, I would recommend finding a testing site or if the family has concerns, seeing their pediatrician.

And I would really reserve the emergency department for those times when parents are concerned that the child is dehydrated or is not looking well, is not breathing comfortably, looks like they're having difficulty breathing, is not urinating - so really specific concerns around whether or not their child is OK. And the emergency department is always available for families. I think all of us in pediatric emergency medicine pride ourselves in being available for families 24/7 when they need us. But we also want to make sure that healthy people are not sitting in a crowded waiting room full of patients who potentially have COVID. And we want to make sure we can provide timely care for those patients who truly are ill.

SIMON: Dr. Kendi, what kind of help can you get from local governments, the federal government, public health officials or, for that matter, families now?

KENDI: In terms of help from families specifically, I think it's each person doing their part by masking, by getting vaccinated if they have not yet been vaccinated, getting boosted if they haven't been boosted, realizing that all of our kids under 5 currently are unvaccinated and the only way to protect them is to make sure that everyone around them is doing the best for protection. And that's masking and getting vaccinated and distancing.

I think in terms of government, I really would love to see more mandates for vaccines and more mandates for masks as well - and then also just testing availability. I know I've seen many families in the emergency department who end up there because they could not find a place to get their children tested and they couldn't find a rapid test. And I think that's a large challenge. You know, we can tell families not to come to the emergency department for testing, but if we don't give them other options that are easily accessible, then many times that's where families end up.

SIMON: Dr. Sadiqa Kendi, who is division chief of the pediatric emergency medicine service at Boston Medical Center, thanks so much. Good luck.

KENDI: Thanks so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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