Sep 17, 2021, 1:32:39 PM CDT Feb 27, 2023, 3:26:55 PM CST

Why are more children getting COVID-19?

An infectious disease expert discusses the rise of COVID-19 in children and ways to prevent illness

Kids at school in masks Kids at school in masks

Early in the pandemic, parents may have found comfort in the fact that, for the most part, children did not appear to be at high risk for COVID‑19. Most cases were among adults, and adults over the age of 65 seemed to be at highest risk for severe illness.

However, as COVID‑19 continues to spread, there are new reports of a growing number of infections in children. This might have you asking, are more children actually getting COVID‑19? And if so, why?

The answer is yes, more children are getting COVID‑19 now than ever before. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children made up about 15.5% of COVID‑19 cases in the U.S. from the start of the pandemic through August 2021. By early September 2021, 28.9% of all newly diagnosed COVID‑19 cases in the U.S. were in kids. For reference, children make up 22.2% of the U.S population.

Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern, explains why this increase is happening and the best ways to prevent illness in children.

Why are COVID‑19 cases in children rising?

The Delta variant, which is now the dominant COVID‑19 strain in the U.S., is driving the spread of COVID‑19 across the country.

"There has certainly been an increase in the number of children who are getting COVID‑19, both locally and nationally," says Dr. Kahn. "To a very large extent, this is driven by the Delta variant."

As this highly contagious COVID‑19 variant spreads, Dr. Kahn explains that other factors are contributing to the rise in cases among children:

  • Less public health measures: Overall, less people are wearing masks in public, social distancing or avoiding large crowds. This gives the virus more opportunity to spread.
  • Low vaccination rates: Some communities have low vaccination rates among those who are eligible. In addition, until recently, children under the age of 12 were not eligible to get vaccinated. "The data clearly shows that in areas with high vaccination rates, there's lower transmission of virus. In areas where the vaccination rates are low, we're seeing a lot more spread of the virus," says Dr. Kahn.
  • Return to school: Children are back in school, which means they are in close quarters indoors for long periods of time. This can provide an ideal environment for the virus to spread if children are not vaccinated or wearing masks. See tips to keep children healthy in school.

Is the Delta variant causing more severe COVID‑19 illness in kids?

As more children get COVID‑19, more children are also being hospitalized with COVID‑19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that since the rise of the Delta variant, the number of children and teens hospitalized for COVID‑19 increased 5-times – with hospitalizations of children ages 0-4 increasing 10-times.

This rise in pediatric hospitalizations is a direct result of the increased spread of COVID‑19. "More kids are getting exposed and infected now," Dr. Kahn explains.

Researchers are still studying if this means that the Delta variant is more virulent – or dangerous – for children. What is known is that as COVID‑19 continues to spread, children are at risk of illness, especially children who cannot get vaccinated. And while children are still at lower risk than adults for severe complications or death from COVID‑19, the rise in hospitalizations is a reminder that children can and do experience serious illness.

Dr. Kahn says that the majority of children who require hospitalization from COVID‑19 have underlying health conditions. These conditions can range from complex medical conditions to single risk factors, such as obesity. Others, however, have no prior health problems.

"We've seen otherwise healthy children be hospitalized," Dr. Kahn says. "We've also seen a lot younger children be hospitalized – even infants and toddlers. The dynamics of the pandemic have changed considerably in the pediatric population."

How can I protect my child from COVID‑19?

The single best way to protect your child from COVID‑19 is to get them vaccinated.

"The vast majority of children and teens being hospitalized are unvaccinated," Dr. Kahn says. "So that is number one: If you have a child who is vaccine eligible, get them vaccinated. If they cannot be vaccinated, make sure everyone who is eligible in your household is vaccinated."

But don't stop there. Encourage everyone you know who is eligible to get the COVID‑19 vaccine as soon as possible. It's the best way to stop the virus from spreading. Data shows that the more people in a community who are vaccinated, the less children are hospitalized from COVID‑19.

If you have a child who is vaccine eligible, get them vaccinated. If they cannot be vaccinated, make sure everyone who is eligible in your household is vaccinated.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn

You can also take other steps to reduce your child's risk of COVID‑19, including:

  • Wearing a mask. Encourage all children over age 2 to wear a mask anytime they are indoors in public. See tips to help. The CDC recommends that all people, including those who are vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in public in areas of substantial or high transmission.
  • Encourage your child to keep their hands clean. Practice good hand hygiene (washing with soap and water when possible or using hand sanitizer when a sink is unavailable).
  • Help your child avoid large crowds. Remind your kids that getting together with large groups of friends – particularly if they are unmasked and indoors – increases the risk of COVID‑19. Choose outdoor activities where physical distancing is possible.

See more COVID‑19 resources

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. Learn more about the COVID‑19 vaccine and children and see more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID‑19 hub.

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