Alaska children make up growing percent of state’s coronavirus cases

a shipping container and a sign that reads "COVID-19 TESTING SITE"
Vehicles line-up on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, afternoon at the Loussac Library, one of Anchorage’s free COVID-19 testing sites. The Municipality has seen a significant increase in the amount of individuals getting tested. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska children too young to be vaccinated are making up a growing share of coronavirus infections, state officials said, as the delta variant drives up case numbers statewide.

Children age 11 and younger accounted for 15% of Alaska’s coronavirus cases last month, according to new data from the state health department.

That’s about double the rate of a year ago, in July 2020, when kids that age made up just under 7% of all cases. And they accounted for 8% of all infections during Alaska’s major surge in November 2020.

It’s not surprising that young children are accounting for a greater percentage of Alaska’s coronavirus cases right now, said Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a physician on Alaska’s COVID-19 vaccine task force. It’s happening nationwide too, as the delta variant continues to tear across the country, and more people are gathering in-person, compared to last year. And while the Pfizer vaccine is approved for Americans age 12 and older, younger children are still ineligible — leaving them unprotected.

“When we get a very transmissible virus like the delta variant that can easily infect people, especially when you’re not vaccinated, we would anticipate that the unvaccinated group in our population is going to have an increase in cases and, following that, an increase in hospitalizations,” Rabinowitz said. 

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Rabinowitz and local pediatricians say no children have died from the coronavirus in Alaska, and young kids are rarely sick enough to be hospitalized. But, they say, the rise in cases in July is concerning given the uncertainty around the coronavirus’ long-term impacts. And the virus is showing no signs of slowing down this month.

“I think kids do a little bit better with this virus, but there’s still significant potential for kids to get very sick,” Rabinowitz said. “And we’ve definitely seen that in Alaska.”

Since the pandemic began, the state has reported 38 COVID-19 hospitalizations among Alaskans age 17 and younger — or 2% of all Alaska’s coronavirus hospitalizations. Rabinowitz said there’s been a “slight rise” recently.

She said the state doesn’t have data on how many of the 716 kids under 12 who tested positive for the coronavirus last month had symptoms. That number of cases is on par with January levels, but still half as many cases as Alaska saw in November 2020.

Rabinowitz said questions remain about how many children will experience long COVID.

By the end of last week, the state had 12 documented cases of a serious condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, which can emerge weeks after a coronavirus infection, she said. There were a few more cases under investigation.

RELATED: COVID-19 cases stress Anchorage intensive care units

At LaTouche Pediatrics in Anchorage, Dr. Erin McArthur said she’s seeing positive COVID-19 tests in all ages, from infants to teenagers.

“We have just as many cases positive for half of August as we did all of July,” she said. “It’s definitely on the uptick.”

She said some children are showing no symptoms at all, and are at the doctor’s office because of another illness or because they need a test before participating in an activity.

Others, she said, do have symptoms. Some just have diarrhea. Others have fevers and coughs, and some also say they can’t taste or smell. Generally, the symptoms are mild in children, she said, and hospitalizations for severe illness continue to be rare.

“We are not seeing it with the severity that it seems to be reported down in the Lower 48 at this point,” McArthur said. But the situation, she added, “is evolving and different daily.” 

Another Alaska pediatric doctor, Wesley Gifford, also said he seems to be encountering the coronavirus more than ever this month.

“It seems like every day I’m dealing with COVID in some context,” said Gifford, a pediatric hospitalist in Anchorage. “Either I have a kid that needs to be admitted for a different reason, and then they happen to have COVID and I need to come up with a way to put them in a safe room in the hospital. Or, I’ve had three moms with COVID in the last week, and I’m trying to keep mom isolated from the baby as best as we can.”

RELATED: These Anchorage residents waited until August to get a COVID vaccine. Here’s why they’re finally getting the shot.

When Gifford sees kids with the coronavirus in the hospital, he said, they’re most often younger — in the age group that can’t get vaccinated yet. The ones who are sick enough to be hospitalized usually need oxygen or other respiratory support. 

“It seemed like most of the COVID we were dealing with last year was happening to adults. And I think the entire community, the whole nation,  was surprised that kids were as spared as they were,” he said. “But now, we’re having cases.” 

At the state health department, Rabinowitz said health officials will continue to closely monitor data on coronavirus infections in Alaska’s children, especially as school resumes this week.

She’s encouraging the COVID-19 vaccine for Alaskans age 12 and up. Slowing the spread of the virus, she said, will also help protect the children who are too young to get vaccinated, and keep school classrooms open.

“I am hopeful that as we’re able to get more of our Alaskan population vaccinated, we can see a decrease in cases in transmission,” she said. “And then when lower age groups are eligible for vaccination, I hope to see an improvement with that as well.”

RELATED: A shot against COVID for kids under 12? Your questions answered.

McArthur said she supports the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations on face masks, including wearing them in school buildings. 

She also recommends families with children focus on keeping their immune systems healthy by eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep. Also, she said, hand washing is key.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.

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Tegan Hanlon is the deputy digital editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at thanlon@alaskapublic.org.