COVID-19 hospitalizations in teens rare, no associated deaths occurred during CDC study

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A small study suggests teens not yet vaccinated against COVID-19 face a low risk of hospitalization due to the virus. What’s more, the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found zero deaths in a group of unvaccinated teens under study.

Findings released Friday in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) drew data from COVID-NET, a surveillance system accounting for about 10% of the national population across 14 states, finding that 204 adolescents aged 12-17 were hospitalized primarily for the virus from January to March 31, 2021. Of the total, nearly one-third were sent to an ICU and 5% required mechanical ventilation, however, there were no deaths.

Another study period dating from March 2020 to April 2021 highlighted the remote risks of hospitalization among teens; the CDC report indicates weekly hospitalization rates hit a high at just 2.1 per 100,000 in January 2021, dropped to 0.6 in March and climbed to 1.3 the following month. Teens’ COVID-19 hospitalization rate was 12.5 times lower when compared with adults over age 18.

Of the 204 patients, 70.6% had at least one underlying medical issue, such as obesity, chronic lung disease and neurologic disorders. Also, about two-thirds of hospitalized teens were Black or Hispanic, reflecting the need for equitable access to now available vaccines, the agency said.

While teens’ COVID-19 hospitalization rates began increasing in March and April, adults over 65 — the group with the most vaccination coverage — saw a stabilized hospitalization rate. Vaccines were not available to teens until May 10, when the FDA expanded Pfizer’s emergency authorization to kids aged 12-15. The CDC attributed the increase to factors like highly transmissible variants, kids heading back to school and differences in mitigation measures like mask wearing and physical distancing.

The findings uphold evidence that younger populations tend to fare better following coronavirus infection, though serious outcomes do occur, albeit rare. Also, almost 30% of kids under study were otherwise healthy, which according to the CDC, underscores the need for vaccination in this age group.

“Recent increases in COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates and the potential for severe disease requiring ICU admission, including invasive mechanical ventilation, among adolescents indicate an urgent need for vaccination in combination with correct and consistent mask wearing by persons not yet fully vaccinated or when required by laws, rules, or regulations,” CDC researchers wrote.

After the study’s release, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said she was concerned by the numbers of hospitalized teens and “saddened” by the number of those sent to intensive care.

“Today’s MMWR presents additional data reporting the trends in hospitalizations among adolescents with COVID-19. I am deeply concerned by the numbers of hospitalized adolescents and saddened to see the number of adolescents who required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation,” Walensky said. “Much of this suffering can be prevented.”

She urged unvaccinated teens to wear masks to protect themselves and other unvaccinated individuals and for parents to talk with their teens about the importance of prevention strategies and vaccination. She encouraged those with questions or concerns to consult with a health care provider, pharmacist or local health department. 

“Vaccination is our way out of this pandemic,” Walensky said.  “I continue to see promising signs in CDC data that we are nearing the end of this pandemic in this country; however, we all have to do our part and get vaccinated to cross the finish line.”

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