The emergency department entrance at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford.
The emergency department entrance at Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford. CTMirror file photo

Pediatric coronavirus hospitalizations in Connecticut have risen dramatically in recent weeks, and health officials are reporting crowded emergency rooms in children’s hospitals.

An average of 21 children per day were hospitalized across the state last week, doubling the average number of pediatric coronavirus patients over the course of a single week, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Jan. 3, the state had 27 children with confirmed COVID-19 in the hospital and an additional six hospitalized who were suspected to have the virus.

By contrast, there was an average of about two children hospitalized per day during Thanksgiving week and an average of about nine per day during Christmas week.

The increase mirrors a national trend. An average of 672 children were admitted to hospitals every day with COVID-19 during the week that ended Sunday, the highest such number of the pandemic, CNN reported.

Since Dec. 1, Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital has admitted 49 children with COVID-19. On Tuesday, the hospital had 18 pediatric cases, with five in the intensive care unit. None were on ventilators, though hospital officials said some children had previously needed the devices.

“In the spring of 2020, when the pandemic started, there was speculation that children had natural immunity because there were very, very low cases among children. On some days, we’d have two or three cases,” said Cynthia N. Sparer, executive director of Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. “Now we have three, four, five times the number of children needing hospital care. Since Thanksgiving, the numbers have gone through the roof.”

Some of the children are very young – under 5 years old and therefore ineligible to be vaccinated. The overwhelming number of kids hospitalized this month are eligible to be vaccinated but were not, Sparer said. Only five who have been hospitalized were fully vaccinated.

Sparer said she is seeing children come to hospital in two ways – “incidental findings,” when children are brought in for other procedures and test positive for COVID-19, and those who are sick with coronavirus symptoms, such as high fevers, respiratory distress and stomach issues.

None of the recent cases has been tied to the Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) that surfaced in children during the first wave of COVID. Overall, Yale has admitted 262 children since the pandemic began, and 63 have been diagnosed with MIS-C. There have been no deaths.

“We have children who come to the emergency room with symptoms and are so sick they end up in ICU,” Sparer said. “Most of the children are discharged after two or three days, but we do worry about children ending up with long COVID.”

At Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, 17 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday, three of them in the intensive care unit. None were on ventilators.

Most of those hospitalized were not vaccinated against coronavirus, health officials said.

Between Sunday at midnight and Monday at midnight, more than 240 children turned up at the emergency department. Of those, 65 tested positive for coronavirus, though not all were admitted.

“We absolutely have a very marked, significant uptick in COVID-19 in the pediatric age group,” said Dr. Juan Salazar, physician in chief at Connecticut Children’s. “At our peak previously, we had 11, 12 kids [hospitalized]. One day we might have had 13. But this is by far the largest number. And not just for today but sustained at those numbers.

“The other thing we had not seen is the number of positive kids coming into the emergency department, to the urgent care facilities. It’s truly a pandemic proportion of children that we hadn’t seen before.”

During the latest wave of COVID-19, physicians are seeing broader spread of the disease, infecting newborns to 18-year-olds.

“At the beginning of this, we were not seeing that,” Salazar said. “Certainly, we were not seeing it in newborns.”

Symptoms in children are similar to those of the flu – sore throat, runny nose, headache, fever and cough. Some symptoms are similar to croup, an infection of the upper airway. “The croup-like illness should not be entirely dismissed as croup and not COVID,” Salazar said. “COVID can present as croup now and then. That’s a twist in this virus, which we hadn’t seen before.”

Some of the families visiting the emergency department have shown up seeking coronavirus testing. Salazar urged parents not to use the emergency room for testing.

“The ED really should be reserved for those kids who need services,” he said. “That will help us, and it will help expedite those kids who have other things that are not COVID that actually require emergency care.”

As pediatric cases increase, some providers are seeing higher demand for the coronavirus vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. When the shot was first rolled out for that age group, physicians said some parents were not eager to vaccinate because they viewed the disease as mild or unlikely to infect children.

“Parents really should not be complacent, because although I’m telling them that most of the cases are mild, we don’t know all the potential long term effects of the virus,” Salazar said. “We don’t know the potential complications of the virus, even if mild, including the inflammatory syndrome. I think they have a responsibility with their children to try to keep them safe and avoid COVID in the first place. The vaccines do work and work beautifully.”

The state’s vaccination rate for 5- to 11-year-olds has risen during the past few weeks, to 34% as of Dec. 30, up from 30%.

The vaccination rate for children 12 to 15 years old has remained in the 75% range throughout December.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.

Katy Golvala is a member of our three-person investigative team. Originally from New Jersey, Katy earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Mathematics from Williams College and received a master’s degree in Business and Economic Journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in August 2021. Her work experience includes roles as a Business Analyst at A.T. Kearney, a Reporter and Researcher at Investment Wires, and a Reporter at Inframation, covering infrastructure in Latin America and the Caribbean.