3 Things to Know About the Delta Variant and Children

The delta variant is causing yet another wave of COVID-19 to surge across the country, and kids are paying the price. Hospitalizations of children are on the rise, and the upcoming return to school is causing understandable concern among parents and doctors.

We asked UNC Health pediatric infectious diseases specialist Peyton Thompson, MD, MSCR, what this means for children and what parents should know. Here are three things we learned.

1. The number of children hospitalized is on the rise.

Although most children and teens typically don’t get as sick with COVID-19 as adults, that’s not the case for everyone. In addition, the hyper-transmissible delta variant is proving to be especially dangerous for those who are unvaccinated. As there is no vaccine available for children ages 11 and younger, it makes them especially vulnerable.

“We are definitely seeing increasing numbers of cases in children. And nationally, we’re at levels of hospitalizations that we saw in January, which was the worst of the last peak in terms of affecting children,” Dr. Thompson says. “What I worry about even more so than the current peak related to delta is what’s to come in the next month or two; we typically see a delay in cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children after acute COVID. And those are the sickest kids I have seen in the past.”

Pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or PMIS, is a condition that causes inflammation of the blood vessels and multiple organs in the body, including the heart, kidneys, skin and gastrointestinal organs. Also called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), it is potentially life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

2. The best way to protect young children is for the adults and adolescents in their lives to get vaccinated.

COVID-19 vaccines have been very effective in preventing severe infections and death, even against the delta variant. Unfortunately, not enough people have received them to keep the virus from mutating.

“Pathogens outsmart us a lot of the time, and part of the problem right now is that we have a large proportion of unvaccinated people, including children—in part because many aren’t eligible for vaccines yet—and so this population of people who are unvaccinated is allowing the virus to continue to spread, continue to mutate, and create even more virulent, severe strains,” Dr. Thompson says.

If your child is over 12, he or she should get vaccinated as soon as possible, Dr. Thompson says.

“It’s very important for those parents and family members who are unvaccinated to go ahead and get their shot,” Dr. Thompson says. “Now is the time, and they can best protect their children by getting vaccinated themselves and preventing themselves from being infected.”

3. Everyone in the family should wear masks in public.

We are learning that even vaccinated people can harbor the virus in their noses and throats and shed it, possibly infecting others. That’s why vaccinated as well as unvaccinated people are being encouraged to wear masks inside public places where transmission rates are high.

“If under 12 or over 12, I encourage mask-wearing at all times in public places, in indoor settings, and especially as children are going back to school,” Dr. Thompson says. “Mask-wearing is going to be imperative to curb the spread of COVID.”

Masks also can help to prevent other illnesses.

“Aside from just COVID right now, we’re seeing a lot of other respiratory viruses, such as RSV,” Dr. Thompson says. “And those are really overwhelming our Children’s Hospital right now at UNC. Mask-wearing is protective against these, too.”

Visit unchealthcare.org/vaccine to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine and for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines.