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Amid another surge, COVID-19 cases in children are reaching historic highs at Milwaukee hospital

Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID vaccine for young children is a lower dose formulation of the companies' adult vaccine. It was found to be safe and 90.7% effective at preventing COVID-19.
Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket
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Getty Images, NPR
Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID vaccine for young children is a lower dose formulation of the companies' adult vaccine. It was found to be safe and 90.7% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Increases in positive cases of COVID-19 in children are reaching historic highs locally. That includes at the Children’s Wisconsin hospital, emergency department, and primary and urgent care settings.

This week, the hospital averaged about 20 positive cases of COVID-19 in kids, which is an increase from 15 positive cases previously.

On Wednesday, Children’s Wisconsin Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Gutzeit said severe cases of COVID-19 remain rare in kids, but some do become very ill.

For example, they can get sick with multi-system inflammatory syndrome. Gutzeit said that the Wisconsin Department of Health Services had reported 143 cases statewide.

He explained what the illness is: "Multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children is an inflammatory condition of the organ systems. It can affect the head, the heart, the lungs, the digestive system. And we see this following the infection of COVID. So, it can occur weeks after the COVID infection may have occurred."

Gutzeit said health care professionals track multi-system inflammatory syndrome in kids to better understand its short and longer-term impact.

But in an update to reporters, Gutzeit stressed the importance of how COVID-19 affects children beyond their physical health.

He said behavioral, social and emotional impacts matter too, and he shared what some current national statistics show.

"We know that reading and math levels have decreased. We know that anxiety, depression and suicide rates are up in kids, and concerningly, gun violence against kids has increased. These are just a few examples of how the pandemic has affected kids and how it's playing out in our community right now," Gutzeit said.

Gutzeit encouraged parents who think their children are exhibiting any of these signs to contact their primary care providers or a behavioral health specialist with any questions.

He also talked about vaccination rates among children. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says 21% of kids ages 5-11 and 57% ages 12-17 have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Gutzeit said he is concerned about low vaccination rates in the eligible child groups. But Children’s Wisconsin is focused on getting the most accurate information to families to help inform their decisions.

"Vaccinations are a key cornerstone, not just for COVID, for many other childhood illnesses that we have seen reduced in significant numbers and severity because of vaccinations. And we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to promote vaccines, to offer information to people so that they understand the importance and safety of vaccines."

With some schools and school districts returning to virtual learning due to the rise in COVID-19 cases, Gutzeit had this recommendation: "My suggestion would be that schools really work with their local health departments whenever possible, with the Department of Health Services and other authorities to provide the safest environment, and do the things in the school setting that allow kids to stay in school. You know, make sure that the masking strategies, washing hands and sometimes even using the test to stay program."

Gutzeit said that the program, for which DHS received federal funding, is a partnership between the department and K-12 schools to simplify the testing process.

Testing is available for staff and symptomatic students, for routine screening, for individuals who participate in school events, or for outbreaks.

The program is free of charge, and schools can complete a survey through the department if they are interested in joining. Gutzeit thinks more schools should join the program.

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