Texas’ third surge in COVID-19 – fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant – is making young people sick in record numbers.
That tragic uptick has many parents reassessing their attitude toward COVID-19 vaccines, says Gary Floyd, MD, a pediatric emergency department physician in Keller and president-elect of the Texas Medical Association. More and more appear to be getting shots for themselves and their families.
“Once their kids start getting involved, [parents] let go of [their objections] and go get vaccinated themselves,” Dr. Floyd said. “And I think that’s important. One of [TMA’s] pleas is to get vaccinated to protect yourself and protect your children.”
Tyler pediatrician Valerie Smith, MD, agrees, saying parents have told her that the start of school – especially in districts with no mask requirements – has caused them to rethink their objections to COVID-19 vaccines.
“As they’re approaching school and recognizing that they’re more likely than not to be exposed at some point in time given the rates in our community, that is shifting the math for many of them,” said Dr. Smith, a member of TMA’s COVID-19 Task Force.
Texas has seen a jump in vaccinations since the delta variant emerged in July as the dominant strain of the COVID-19-causing virus. On July 1, 57.7% of those 12 and older had received at least one dose, and 49.6% were fully vaccinated, according to Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. By Aug. 24, 67.1% had received one dose and 55.7% were fully vaccinated.
Young people aged 12 to 15 saw the biggest increase, jumping from 17.9% fully vaccinated to 32.2%, Mr. Van Deusen says in an email. Also, average daily vaccinations increased from about 44,000 in early July to 84,000 in late August.
Texas physicians have watched daily as a disease that started off as a greater threat to people who are elderly and those with weakened immune systems has shifted gears and become what Dr. Floyd calls an “equal-opportunity virus.”
“The mystique that [COVID-19] is an old person’s illness should be dispelled,” he said. “It’s affecting children now.”
That’s evident in the COVID-19 test results for Dr. Smith’s patients.
“Back in January, when we were definitely at a peak nationally with hospitalizations among adults, we would run multiple COVID tests – up to 10 – before I’d get one positive,” Dr. Smith said. “In the clinic now, on a daily basis our positivity rate is running between 30% and 50%. It’s not good.”
Most of the children testing positive have relatively mild symptoms – coughing, sneezing, or loss of taste or smell, she says. But because there are more cases of COVID-19 overall, there are more severe cases among her patients.
“I’m in a relatively small practice, and we’ve got a kid in the ICU, and we’ve got a kid on the floor who are hospitalized right now,” she said. “Previously, during the entire pandemic, I’ve had two patients who were in the hospital.”
Hospitals have witnessed the same disturbing trend, says Donald Murphey, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin and a member of TMA’s COVID-19 Task Force.
“When we had our big, bad wave of COVID in Austin a year ago, we had [a few] kids coming in around the same time,” he said. “But this summer, it’s like they all showed up – boom, boom, boom, boom. There were more kids sicker and showing up in a shorter amount of time. And I think if you look around at other children’s hospitals, you’re seeing the same.”
There are different theories about why the delta variant affects young people more than the original COVID-19 virus, Dr. Murphey says. It’s not clear if the virus has mutated to target young people more often, or if more young people are getting sick simply because the delta variant spreads faster and makes more people sick overall.
But it is clear that COVID-19 infections occur more frequently in populations with low vaccination rates, he says. Also, young people are a mostly unvaccinated population because the vaccine still is not approved for kids under the age of 12.
“Young people don’t have high rates of vaccination, and that’s one reason that we’re seeing more delta among young people,” he said.
The latest wave of COVID-19 infections has filled up hospital beds and intensive care units across the state, Dr. Floyd says.
And along with other respiratory illnesses, like unseasonable appearances by respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, the surge has caused Dr. Smith’s clinic to divert resources. One physician who was handling childhood well-visits now sees sick patients about half the time, and the clinic brought on a part-time health care professional full time, she says.
Gov. Greg Abbott recently responded to TMA’s request for greater flexibility at the local level to respond to and slow the surge of COVID-19 and its impacts on the health care system by adding vaccination mandates to the special session agenda.
But right now, the surge appears to have no end in sight, Dr. Floyd says.
“So far [the rates of COVID-19] are going straight up,” he said. “We’re approaching the higher levels of last winter.”
The solutions are improved vaccination rates for everyone 12 and older – and using the tools we had before the vaccines came along, Dr. Floyd says.
“The way we stemmed the tide last winter was with masking and distancing,” he said. “People have asked if we need to shut everything down. I don’t think we need to, but I do think if we could convince people to wear masks again … that’s going to help stem the spread.”