RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Children account for nearly a quarter of new COVID-19 cases in North Carolina, according to a CBS17.com analysis of state Department of Health and Human Services data.
Explanations for the increase in that proportion are wide-ranging, from increased testing at schools to the simple math of a drop in cases among other age groups that already are eligible for the vaccines.
According to the most recent DHHS data, children younger than 18 accounted for 22.2 percent of the 10,116 cases reported last week, the most recent available. That share was just over 15 percent a month earlier.
The statewide numbers follow a national trend: The American Association of Pediatrics says 22.4 percent of new cases reported in roughly the last week of April were children.
And overall, 12 percent of the nearly 980,000 known cases in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic have been under 18 — well below the national average of 13.8 percent, according to the AAP.
More good news: Children continue to largely avoid the most severe outcomes, continuing to account for less than 3 percent of all COVID-19-related hospital admissions in the state.
“The percentage in hospitals has remained relatively steady,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International.
MacDonald says the growing share of cases among children can be attributed to testing for COVID-19 within schools.
DHHS began making rapid antigen tests available to schools in early March, and staff at the agency did not immediately have a count of how many of those tests have been administered.
“I think, based on the increased number of testing, routine testing in the schools, that’s going to lead to more finding of cases in the schools and among children,” MacDonald said.
Another explanation boils down to basic math.
Children under 16 are not yet eligible for the vaccines, unlike the members of all other age groups — though Triangle vaccine providers say they’re ready to vaccinate 12-to-15-year-olds once the Food and Drug Administration authorizes it.
As the case counts drop among those populations, the proportion for kids is bound to rise.
“Particularly for children, because we don’t have a pediatric vaccine, we need to be really vigilant,” said Dr. Meagan Fitzpatrick of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Fitzpatrick co-authored a study that looks closer at the efficacy of a potential stopgap measure.
Her team found that quick testing and contact tracing of presymptomatic and asymptomatic infections in children — and vaccinating adults — could bring the counts of those new infections to the same low level that might be expected if the children themselves were vaccinated.
“We need to continue the practices of contact tracing, and really tracking down the infections in kids to make sure that we don’t allow COVID to spread unchecked,” Fitzpatrick said.