Health experts are urging parents to vaccinate their teenagers against COVID-19 after a report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed hospitalizations increased months leading up to the vaccine’s authorization for people 12 and up.
The agency’s surveillance system COVID-NET – which covers approximately 10% of the country’s population – found hospitalization rates among adolescents 12 to 17 increased from March 1 to April 24 after declining in January and February, according to the study published Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Among 204 adolescents patients hospitalized for COVID-19 from Jan. 1 to March 31, more than 30% were admitted to the intensive care unit and nearly 5% required mechanical ventilation. More than 35% of patients hospitalized were Black and 31% Latino.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement Friday she was “deeply concerned” and “saddened” by the report’s findings.
“Much of this suffering can be prevented,” she said. “I ask parents, relatives and close friends to join me and talk with teens about the importance of these prevention strategies and to encourage them to get vaccinated.”
About 70% of hospitalized adolescents had one or more underlying medical conditions, with the most common being obesity, chronic lung disease including asthma and neurological disorders.
But Dr. Henry Bernstein, pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, said it’s important to note that nearly 30% of hospitalized adolescents were “perfectly healthy.”
“So, it’s not just those that have underlying conditions that need to be vaccinated,” said Bernstein, who is also a member of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice (ACIP). “Everyone needs to be vaccinated.”
However, teen hospitalizations rates from March 1 to April 24 were still about 12.5 times lower than adults 18 and older, and some experts worry health officials are rushing to vaccinate children and adolescents without sufficient safety data when they’re not at risk for severe disease.
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A vaccine safety group with the CDC announced May 17 it was investigating reports of myocarditis occurring in young adults and teenagers who have received the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. The condition is inflammation in the heart muscle that can affect the heart’s electrical system, reducing its ability to pump, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Although cases were reportedly mild and patients recovered, it’s unclear if they may suffer from long term effects or scarring of the heart muscle, said Dr. Cody Meissner, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Tufts Children’s Hospital.
“The issue that one has to address with any vaccine is does any side effect from the vaccine outweigh a benefit from the disease that’s being prevented … at the present time, there doesn’t seem to be deaths in the 12 to 17 age group,” he said. “The ethical mandate isn’t to get our children and adolescents vaccinated, the ethical mandate is to do no harm.”
As of June 4, approximately 2.3 million 12- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.
“There’s a train leaving the station, and everyone is jumping on it and it makes me a little bit nervous,” Meissner said. “It’s too fast.”
Some health experts say the report may not be an accurate depiction of the true impact COVID-19 has on the adolescent population, as it only documented hospitalizations with positive tests and didn’t account for patients admitted for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C.
“A majority of kids with MIS-C don’t necessarily have a positive PCR test. They are more likely to have antibody evidence of having had the infection, but those things are not being tested,” Bernstein said. “We may in fact be underestimating severe COVID-19 associated disease among teenagers.”
Meissner argues the condition is too rare to make a difference.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech on May 10 for children 12 and older. Before that, the vaccine was authorized for people over the age of 16.
Both the mRNA vaccine by Moderna and the single-shot vaccine by Johnson & Johnson are currently authorized for adults 18 and older. Moderna reported May 25 its vaccine has been shown in trials to be safe effective for children as young as 12 and will ask for FDA authorization for its broadened use this month.
Dr. Alejandro Jordan Villegas, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, said the most important thing about vaccination is preventing severe infection and mortalities both in adolescents and other members of the community.
“We know that kids, especially older than 10, have a higher transmissible rate than kids younger than 10. If we immunize that population, it will decrease the chances that those infected teenagers will go into the community and infect others,” he said.
Walensky urged teens to continue following public health recommendations until they become fully vaccinated.
“Until they are fully vaccinated, adolescents should continue to wear masks and take precautions when around others who are not vaccinated to protect themselves, and their family, friends, and community,” she said.
Taylor Avery contrFollow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
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