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Kids are the fastest-growing segment of the Omicron surge in South Carolina

Ten percent of South Carolina children ages 5 to 11 have completed their COVID vaccine course, according to DHEC.
Ten percent of South Carolina children ages 5 to 11 have completed their COVID vaccine course, according to DHEC.

Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 17, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) posted a little more than 80,000 positive COVID-19 cases – more than the population of Oconee County.

The Omicron variant is, of course, the culprit. It’s not as deadly as previous variants, says Dr. Divya Ahuja of Prisma Health, but it’s significantly more infectious. On Wednesday, DHEC reported that one in three COVID tests came back positive.

All this yields a simplistic mathematical equation: The more people get infected, the more people get sick, and the more people have to go to the hospital. That includes children.

“You’re seeing numbers go up among all ages groups,” says Dr. Jonathan Knoche, a physician with DHEC and a board certified pediatrician. “But in the past two weeks, those between ages 10 and 19 and those under age 10 have demonstrated the fastest rate of increases of any age group.”

Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 17, DHEC identified roughly 26,300 new cases in South Carolinians age 20 and younger; 11,488 among children age 10 and younger.

Data from the South Carolina Children’s Hospital Collaborative tracks the number of children 17 and young who are hospitalized. On Wednesday, SCCHC reported 52 children in the hospital because of COVID, 50 of whom are not vaccinated. About half the unvaccinated are not yet age 5, the youngest age at which a person can be legally vaccinated against COVID.

Of the hospitalized children in the state – some of whom are as young as 4 weeks, according to Dr. Robin Lacroix, a pediatrician at Prisma Health in Greenville – 13 are in critical care. Three of her patients have remained in the hospital after three-week treatment because, while not infectious anymore, they still have to get past the virus’ effects on their bodies. Zero of her patients are unvaccinated, she said Wednesday.

The doctors all beat a familiar drum in championing established mitigation measures: wash your hands, wear a mask, and socially distance. But their largest recommendation continues to be vaccination.

“The number one way you can protect your child from COVID and keep your child in school, even after exposures,” says Dr. Anna Kathryn Burch of Prisma Health in Columbia, “is to get your child vaccinated.”

Vaccination rates for South Carolina children ages 5 to 11 are extremely low. According to DHEC, as of Wednesday, 16 percent of children this age have received one shot; 10 percent have received both. According to the Mayo Clinic, which tracks vaccination rates by age in every state, South Carolina is bottom 10 in vaccination rates for children ages 5 to 11.

DHEC is trying to get the word out through a jingle contest that offers a $10,000 purse for the best jingle that promotes vaccination among students. (The money goes to a school program, not to an individual’s bank account.) Until the winner is announced in the spring, however, it’s up to pediatricians to talk with parents and up to parents to weigh the risks, says Dr. Knoche.

He’s sympathetic to parents’ concerns about the vaccine. He is a parent and his eligible children are vaccinated, but Dr. Knoche says he understands parents’ hesitancy, to a point.

“They feel like this vaccine is new,” he says. “They’re not sure what the long-term consequences or side-effects might be. And I think that’s fair [but] it’s important to recognize the benefits of getting this vaccination and its effectiveness at preventing disease, preventing hospitalization, preventing somebody from getting MIS-C.”

Dr. Knoche says that the choice to vaccinate your children comes down to an assessment of risk: Do you want to risk possible side-effects from a vaccine that has proven safe and effective in multiple millions of cases, or risk your child getting COVID, which has proven destructive and fatal in multiple millions of cases?

“Your children are better off being vaccinated than getting COVID,” he says. “I’m 100 percent confident of that.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.