As the school year starts for districts across the United States, child COVID-19 cases are up, with about 204,000 cases added last week. For the week ending August 26, children accounted for 22.4% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases, according to the American Academy of Pediactrics.
While child COVID-19 cases declined in early summer, they have "increased exponentially," with more than a five-fold increase the past month, according to the academy. The U.S. saw child cases go from about 38,000 the week ending July 22 to more than 200,000 the past week.
The rate of child COVID-19 cases last week was well above the average throughout the pandemic. Since the pandemic began, children represented 14.8% of total cumulated cases. In total, 4.8 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, and new variants are posting a higher risk for children, most of whom are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines.
The academy collected COVID-19 data from 49 states, New York City, Puerto Rico and Guam. Overall, the rate of child COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of August 26 was 6,374 cases per 100,000 children in the population, according to the group.
Twenty states reported more than 8,000 cases per 100,000. Tennessee, South Carolina, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Arkansas and Mississippi had the highest rates of child cases per 100,000 kids, according to the data.
Cases are increasing across the country again, which means there is also an increase in hospitalizations of all age demographics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a news briefing last week.
"But, because the absolute number of cases is so high, the absolute number of children who are coming into the hospital is high. It's also the case that we are currently within a surge of RSV cases as well, respiratory syncytial virus cases," Walensky said. "We're seeing RSV rates similar to what we generally see in the winter months."
Due to the "highly contagious Delta variant," the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools – regardless of vaccination status.
"I can tell you that most of the places where we're seeing surges and outbreaks are in places that are not implementing our current guidance," Walensky said, adding that it's not hospitalizations that are spiking, but number of cases.
Because children under 12 cannot yet receive the vaccine, the CDC recommends schools utilize several prevention strategies and continue to implement social distancing, testing and routine hand washing in addition to masking.
Several school districts are also requiring staff to get vaccinated – including New York City, Chicago and all of California – as experts say a way to keep kids safe is for the adults around them to be vaccinated.
But some states are resisting preventative measures. The governors of Texas and Florida threatened backlash for districts that implement mask mandates in schools, but many districts are defying their orders.
The U.S. Department of Education is also investigating five Republican-led states – Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah – due to concerns that their mask mandate bans could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19, Reuters reports.
"Masks save lives and reduces the transmission of COVID-19," said Dr. Leslie Diaz, an infectious disease specialist at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida, Wednesday on CBSN.
"The science is there, masks work and we should utilize them," Diaz said. "Especially in the school district and in the schools that are inundated now with all of the kids coming back and not doing virtual learning."
The science proves masks work in preventing the spread of COVID-19, she said.
"We are in a crisis. Whether you know you really want to acknowledge it or not, the reality is there every day of my life. I can't dismiss it," she said. "Wearing masks has become very relaxed behavior around here, and around the United States. It shouldn't be."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said when children are eligible for vaccines, schools should mandate them. "I believe that mandating vaccines for children to appear in school is a good idea," Fauci told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday. "We've done this for decades and decades, requiring polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis [vaccinations.]"
Fauci also said this week that there is a chance vaccines will be available to kids by the holiday season, Reuters reports.
While severe illness due to COVID-19 is still uncommon among children, "there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects," the academy says.