TAMPA, Fla. — Far more children than reported have been infected with the coronavirus. That’s the troubling conclusion reached by a new study conducted at the University of South Florida. Researchers believe health officials have vastly underestimated the strain that’s going to be placed on both hospitals in general and pediatric intensive care units (PICUs) in the near future.
According to the research, for every one child who requires intensive COVID-19 care, there are 2,381 other adolescents infected with the virus. Even if one assumes that many of those children will end up being asymptomatic, if even a small percentage require hospitalization it could overwhelm healthcare pediatric infrastructure if the right preparations aren’t made.
Based on data from the North American registry and Virtual PICU Systems, 74 American children were admitted to PICUs between March 18th and April 6th. Going off of the researchers’ estimates, that means an additional 176,190 children were infected as well.
As far as ages, children younger than two years old made up 30% of those PICU cases, while 24% ranged from two years old to the age of 11. Another 46% were adolescents aged 12-17.
If 25% of the U.S. population is exposed to coronavirus by the end of this year, that would mean 50,000 children will develop severe symptoms and require hospitalization. Of that group, 5,400 will need mechanical ventilation. Right now, there are only 5,100 PICU beds available in the entire country.
“Although the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 is lower in pediatric cases than adults, hospitals should be prepared and have the proper equipment and staffing levels to deal with a potential influx of younger patients,” says author Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology in the USF College of Public Health, in a release. “Government officials and policy makers should understand the likelihood of capacity challenges, which underscores the importance of effective mitigation strategies such as frequent and thorough handwashing and persisted social distancing measures.”
Perhaps even more so than adult patients, the study’s authors say that pediatric coronavirus cases are quite complex. Most of the time, if a child is infected their caretaker is as well. This fact alone adds an additional logistical consideration for hospitals. Also, it’s often impossible for young children to completely self-isolate themselves once released from medical care.
The study also notes that infection rates will probably be higher among children from low-income households, due to many parents within this income bracket not having access to remote employment opportunities. Kids living in urban public housing projects also face an elevated risk of infection due to close proximity of living arrangements.
The study is published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.