More than 600 children have been hospitalized for COVID at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County since the start of the pandemic as questions and concerns for student safety persist as they return to classrooms this month. 

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At a Thursday news conference, one of the top pediatricians in the county warned the new Delta variant could start affecting children’s long term health. 

“It is true children are less likely to become severely ill with COVID compared to adults. However, they’re not immune and can become severely ill,” said Dr. Coleen Cunningham, senior vice president of CHOC hospital and the hospital’s pediatrician-in-chief.

She noted it can cause inflammation of blood vessels and damage to the heart and other organs.

“More than 600 children have been hospitalized at CHOC with COVID or COVID-related disease,” she said.

So far, vaccines are only approved for people 12 and older.

Cunningham, who chairs UC Irvine’s Department of Pediatric, said even mild virus infections in children could lead to a host of health complications down the road — just like adults.

OC has been seeing a steady increase in cases since the June 15 statewide reopening, when nearly all pandemic restrictions were dropped. 

“The surge in cases is the result of the very contagious Delta variant and the desire for people to return to normal activities and discard their masks and discard social distancing measures.” 

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At a Friday media briefing hosted by the county, OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau echoed some of Cunningham’s concerns. 

“To say that kids are immune from COVID is an absolute lie,” Chau said. “We have gotten close to 29,000 kids under the age of 18 who have tested positive for COVID-19.” 

He noted they’ve seen a steady increase in children cases since the beginning of July.

Chau refuted the suggestion that mild cases in children can be shrugged off: “that is a lie.” 

“You probably have heard here in our own backyard this week a parent spoke out from their experience. Their 14 year-old son who had COVID was not very severe at all, but developed psychotic symptoms,” he said. 

At Voice of OC’s Monday pandemic town hall, UCI nursing professor Melissa Dawn Pinto, a long term COVID symptom expert, said studies are still being done on who’s getting the prolonged health effects known as long haul symptoms.

Dawn Pinto said long haul symptoms have been showing up in children and experts are scrambling to understand what that means in the long run.

“We don’t know the long term effects of the virus on the body,” she said, adding that researchers have seen cognitive issues and speech problems in children.

Friday’s news briefing marks the first general pandemic update given to the press in months. 

County Supervisors stopped holding weekly news conferences last December, when the Winter wave was slamming hospitals with virus patients and ambulance wait times were steadily increasing — along with deaths. 

[Read: Every County in So Cal Offers Residents Public Updates on Covid, Except OC]

Supervisor Katrina Foley began convening her own news conferences each weekday, starting last Friday. 

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State public health officials are mandating universal masking for everyone in schools — students, teachers, cafeteria staff, janitors — in an effort to curb virus transmission. 

And most recently, they’re requiring all school staff to either prove they’re fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. 

[Read: Vaccine Verification Spreading as Orange County COVID-19 Cases Keep Increasing]

As of Friday, there were 498 people hospitalized, including 120 in intensive care units, according to state data. 

That’s the highest number of people hospitalized since late February, but that was when daily new cases were on a downward trend following the height of the Winter wave. 

There are some signs indicating the most recent surge could be plateauing. 

“Our seven-day average case rate has gone from 14.8 to 20 per 100,000 (residents). And our average daily cases actually was 477 and then it went up to one point like 900 cases reported per day and these last few days we’ve seen a gradual drop,” Chau said at the Friday news briefing. 

Chau, along with health officers throughout the Golden State, say more than 90% of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated. 

He said the common thing with vaccinated people in hospitals is their health conditions.

“The only factor that stands out is that they are immunosuppressed or have unstable chronic health conditions,” Chau said in a Friday text message.

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At Thursday’s news conference, UCI epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said public health officials across the country should be more direct about vaccinated people getting the virus — known as breakthrough cases. 

“I think it’s really unfortunate that breakthrough cases have been downplayed as much as they have been. Because everyone knows that there are breakthrough cases happening and instead of pretending they’re not, we should just be candid and say breakthrough cases happen and they’re overwhelmingly much midler than an infection in a non-vaccinated person,” Noymer said.

He also said most breakthrough cases are mild.

The shots are proving to keep cases low for fully vaccinated people, according to county Health Care Agency data. 

Unvaccinated residents are getting the virus at 40 cases per 100,000 people. 

In comparison, fully vaccinated are getting cases at 7.4 per 100,000 people. 

Roughly 82% of OC’s seniors have been fully vaccinated. 

More than 1.9 million OC residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the Health Care Agency.

The age group with the lowest vaccination rates is 18 to 40 year olds, county health officials say. 

Since so many people have been fully vaccinated, Noymer said this surge shouldn’t be as deadly as the last waves.

“I expect mortality to decline, and that’s the good news. We’re going to be seeing fewer deaths than before and that’s because of vaccination.” 


Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio


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