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Pediatric vaccines lagging, more children on ventilators from COVID-19

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 8:11 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - More children were on ventilators, being treated for COVID-19, in South Carolina’s pediatric hospitals on Thursday than at any point in the pandemic.

According to the South Carolina Children’s Hospital Collaborative, a nonprofit association of the state’s four pediatric hospitals, 11 COVID-positive children were on ventilators Thursday, 14 COVID-positive children were in critical care, and 32 children were in the hospital with COVID-19.

All of those children were unvaccinated, according to the SCCHC, though most of them were old enough to qualify for the shot.

The collaborative reports about 66% of the children hospitalized with COVID, about 71% of those in critical care, and about 64% of those on a ventilator were age 12 or older. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible to receive the COVID vaccine.

“The challenge is, how do we get people to want to get their kids vaccinated?” said Dr. Caughman Taylor, the senior medical director of Prisma Health Children’s Hospital – Midlands. “And you know, it is just so frustrating to sit here daily and see the sadness and tragicness of kids being sick unnecessarily.”

Taylor said the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit has been as busy as he has ever seen for an extended length of time.

He said the PICU was at 108% capacity Thursday, having added another bed to its usual bed count to care for more patients.

“In the last almost six weeks, except for maybe one or two nights, we have had full capacity in our pediatric intensive care,” Taylor said. “We have never had that situation before in my over 25, 30 years here.”

That has led to longer waits in the hospital’s pediatric emergency room, Taylor said, where children are sometimes treated when beds are not available.

“Our wait times go from usually less than an hour — we’ve had four- to six-hour waits sometimes, and the sad part about that is, then many families decide to leave and not have their child seen, and then an illness can get worse in a child,” Taylor said.

Data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environment Control shows about 34% of South Carolinians who are 12 to 19 years old have received at least one vaccine dose, and about 25% of those in that age group have been fully vaccinated.

Those numbers lag behind the vaccination rates for all eligible South Carolinians, of whom about 58% have received at least one shot and about 49% are fully vaccinated. However, children ages 12 to 15 were not eligible to be vaccinated until May.

Taylor said that is one reason why the pediatric vaccination numbers may be lower than the general population’s, though the vaccine is currently widely available.

But he said other factors likely contribute to the low vaccination rate as well, including older children and teens not going to the doctor for well visits as much as younger children, missing an opportunity to learn about the COVID shot and receive it.

He said parents also may not think their children need to be vaccinated, especially if they have not been so themselves.

“If the parents haven’t gotten vaccinated, they often won’t get their child vaccinated,” Taylor said.

DHEC’s public health director, Dr. Brannon Traxler, agreed the later vaccine eligibility start date for those in the 12-15 age group has likely contributed to the lower rate for the 12-19 age group.

“However, they certainly have had plenty of opportunities,” she said. “I think that that age group can be very difficult to convince that they need a preventative health action, such as a vaccine, that they are not invincible and that this is important for themselves but also for everyone else.”

Traxler said DHEC will continue to push the message that the vaccine is safe and effective and that it is the best way for kids, teens, and their families to return to their pre-pandemic lives.

“We all want things to go back to normal,” she said. “I think teenagers, absolutely, are among those who very much want to get back to normal, and so this is the best and fastest way that we can do it and that avoids losing the most lives along the way.”

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