RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- More children are ending up in the hospital with COVID-19 as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the country.
Across the United States, 39% more children were hospitalized for the virus since the start of December, according to federal data.
The number of pediatric COVID-19 emergency department visits is also increasing. Children now account for nearly 10% of nationwide emergency department visits.
The New York Department of Health sent out an advisory on Friday warning of an increase in children getting hospitalized for COVID-19 across the state. Pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 quadrupled in two weeks, according to the Christmas Eve memo. Half of the patients were under five years old and ineligible for the vaccine. New York Health experts also said none of the five- to eleven-year-old patients admitted were fully vaccinated and only 23% of the twelve to seventeen-year-old patients were vaccinated.
In North Carolina, the percentage of pediatric patients reached a record high during the week of Thanksgiving; making up 2.3% of COVID-19 patients. Since then, the percentage has sharply declined. The latest data shows less than 1% of the 1,680 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 are children.
NCDHHS data has not been updated since Dec. 22. and health experts do expect the number of infections and hospitalizations among kids to inevitably spike.
"I think we're seeing our big bump up now in terms of infections. And we don't know what that's going to do for children in the next couple of weeks," said Dr. Lisa Pickett, Chief Medical Officer at Duke University Hospital. "I think it's going to be a difficult couple of weeks ahead."
Duke Health reported just one pediatric COVID-19 case as of Monday morning. The health system has 75 COVID-19 patients across its three hospitals.
The state is averaging around four new pediatric patients a day, based on the most recent data for the week of Dec. 11.
Pickett said last week Omicron became the dominant variant at the hospital and the health system is seeing a record number of staff members impacted.
"We are preparing for what is usually a week or two delay in hospitalizations. We have certainly seen that uptick but not a dramatic bump in either adults or pediatrics but we're preparing for a rapid increase in either or both of those," said Pickett.
The unvaccinated population remains particularly vulnerable to the very contagious variant; this includes children under five years old who are ineligible for the vaccine.
Many older children also remain at risk. Only 19% of North Carolina children ages 5-11 are partially vaccinated. Around half (46%) of 12-17-year-olds are partially vaccinated across the state.
Pickett called these rates concerning.
"This is the opportunity for your child to have their vaccine so that they can work safely, go back to school and interact with others," said Pickett. "We know that it won't prevent every single infection, but it certainly will prevent the more severe infections and that would be better for their overall health."
Picket predicts as schools resume; the virus will further spread and potentially impact staffing.
Pickett said the spread not only threatens kids and unvaccinated individuals but the entire community.
"The more virus that's out there, the more it can mutate. And while Omicron is terrible, and Delta was terrible, if we saw a future variant that was as infectious as Omicron and as severe as Delta, it could be worse than what we've seen so far. So, we want to make sure that we push down the amount of virus as much as possible so that that continual mutation is less likely to occur," said Pickett.
A spokesperson from UNC Health said the hospital system is not seeing an increase in children admitted for COVID-19. However, its pediatric ICUs are very busy from a rise in children with other illnesses and trauma.
Pickett said it is still too soon to know if the Omicron variant will impact children any differently. She reminds everyone to continue to stay vigilant by avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, and washing their hands.
"We need to just be really on our guard for the next few weeks, to really try to protect our families and our communities, and do everything we can to keep everybody healthy," said Pickett.