An ABC11 I-Team analysis of state data found that children made up one 1 of every 5 COVID-19 cases reported in North Carolina for July and August. Last summer, around 10% of cases were linked to children.
"I think when we look at the proportion of all cases that are pediatric patients, you have to be a little bit careful reading too much into that because you know because they're not eligible for the vaccine," said Dr. Mike Smith, a professor of Pediatrics at Duke University.
Only children 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Around 6% of North Carolinians 12-17 years old have been vaccinated, according to NCDHHS.
School settings could drive cases even higher
The number of severe cases in children is also increasing.
"Last year, I hate to use the word lucky but maybe we got a little bit lucky in that we didn't have much severe disease in children, and we are we're seeing that now this year," Smith said.
Last week, about 60 patients younger than 17 years old were hospitalized. Children still make up just 2% of the state's overall hospitalizations.
"I think we are seeing the most pediatric patients admitted with COVID that we have seen throughout the pandemic," said Dr. Karen Chilton, the medical director for the WakeMed Children's Hospital.
She stressed that despite the uptick in hospitalizations, very few COVID-19 cases lead to hospitalizations for children.
"Children with obesity or other chronic illnesses seem to be a little bit more likely to come down with COVID-19 that's severe enough to require hospitalization," Chilton said.
She said her hospital is full because of an increase in COVID-19 patients along with a surge in other respiratory viruses. Operating at maximum capacity does have Chilton concerned about the effect that schools could start to have on transmission.
"As many older kids, and staff in the schools and adults in the community in general that we can get vaccinated. We really feel strongly that that's the line of defense No. 1 in being able to prevent our health system being truly overrun and becoming not able to care for the volume of patients," she said.
Protecting children in a pandemic
Smith, who is a father, said he feels better knowing children attend schools with mask mandates.
"A large number of kids in school who are less than 12 years old can't get vaccinated, so masking is really the only thing we have to offer," he said.
On Thursday, NCDHHS reported 222 new COVID-19 cases connected with K-12 settings and 27 new clusters in the past week. This increase comes even as many local school districts have mask mandates in place.
"Masking in schools is designed to prevent transmission of COVID within schools. So, that's different than, you know, if you wear a mask in school, but you don't wear masks in other places, you're still going to get COVID at church, at the grocery store, or playing in your backyard with neighbors."
Smith and Chilton urged parents to monitor their students for symptoms to help prevent any future clusters from emerging.
"If your child has a respiratory symptom, cough, congestion, runny nose, I would try to keep them out of school," Smith said.
Smith reinforced that the best protection for children too young to get vaccinated is for family members to receive the vaccine. He said a vaccine for younger children could be approved in the winter as trials are still ongoing.