Doctors warn of growing COVID-19 risks for Idaho kids

The pandemic is costing Idaho kids their health and well-being

By: - September 30, 2021 4:38 am
a medic transports a 2-year-old COVID-19 positive patient

An EMS medic from the Houston Fire Department prepares to transport a COVID-19 positive girl, age 2, to a hospital on Aug. 25, 2021, in Houston, Texas. The child’s mother said she had come down with fever, runny nose and had begun vomiting after attending a day care center the week before. In a Wednesday media briefing, Idaho doctors warned they’re also seeing an uptick in COVID cases in teens, children and infants, averaging 14 children with the disease over the past week. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Several doctors warned in a media briefing Wednesday that Idaho’s COVID-19 crisis is spilling over, more and more, into children and babies.

“Long COVID” left one child needing a pacemaker, a pediatrician said. Another doctor said she’s seeing an uptick in fetal deaths and stillbirths. A third doctor said babies are born prematurely to save the mother’s life, and those babies start their own lives with unexpected complications.

Children age 12 and older can receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for free.

Idaho children have a low per-capita vaccination rate. The 12-to-15 age group accounts for 7% of Idaho’s total population but only 4% of the vaccinated population. The 16-to-17 age group is 3% of Idaho’s population but only 2% of the vaccinated population.

Idaho requires children to have a parent’s permission to get the vaccine.

“I’ve had teenagers request the vaccine, and parents said no. I’ve had parents who are vaccinated and believe their child should have the right to say no,” said Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and CEO of Primary Health.

“There’s nothing to be gained by confronting an adolescent … and with COVID, it isn’t going to go well to confront parents,” Peterman says. His approach is to try to answer any questions they have.

Peterman said teens, as well as their parents, are susceptible to misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, and that it’s unlike anything he’s seen as a pediatrician when it comes to immunizations. They’ve taken his advice for years about childhood vaccines and annual flu shots but resist the coronavirus vaccine, he said.

Idaho’s pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 are rising

The most recent federal data show an increase in Idaho’s pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19. It is rare for a child or teen to be admitted with the disease. But it does happen. Idaho hospitals averaged 14 children with COVID-19 over the past week.

Dr. Kenneth Bramwell, of St. Luke’s Children’s — the state’s only children’s hospital — says pediatric admissions with COVID-19 are now five times higher than they were in early summer.

No Idaho child has died of causes related to COVID-19 at this point, according to state data.

At the moment, adults still far outpace children in their need for hospital care. St. Luke’s Health System on Wednesday had five children admitted with COVID-19, and about 300 adults, Bramwell noted.

“It’s certainly worrisome that we’re seeing the uptick, but it’s not the sort of panic-level admissions that we’re seeing in adults,” he said of pediatric hospitalizations.

Areas without masks in schools have higher COVID-19 test positivity

Primary Health Medical Group operates several clinics in the Treasure Valley, and it is one of the largest COVID-19 test providers in Idaho.

Peterman said he’s been keeping track of the test positivity rates for patients in each school district, to see whether each district’s approach to COVID-19 safety is tied to the community as a whole.

“What you’re seeing, in most cases, the positivity rate in (the Boise School District area) is lower,” Peterman said. Boise public schools have required masking for teachers, staff and students.

School districts without mask mandates tend to also have higher COVID-19 test positivity rates — a leading indicator that the coronavirus is spreading uncontrollably in that community.

A chart showing COVID-19 test positivity rate by school district for Primary Health Medical Group
A chart shows the COVID-19 test positivity rate by school district for Primary Health Medical Group’s tests. (Screen capture from presentation)

Peterman, a pediatrician, also said COVID-19 long haul syndrome is showing up in Idaho kids.

He mentioned a child who recovered from COVID-19 but now needs a pacemaker. Some patients were “superb athletes” but, after COVID-19, took monthslong breaks from sports or haven’t returned at all.

Idaho kids and teens are in mental health crisis

Dr. Jennifer King, pediatric hospitalist director at Saint Alphonsus Health System, is concerned about an increase in suicide attempts among children and teens.

The mental health effects of the pandemic have been massive and complex. Children and teens are now losing family members to the disease. They struggle to deal with isolation when they’re forced to stay home from school because of COVID-19 quarantines and school closures, she said.

She said the mental health issues among Idaho’s youngest residents are “concerning on many different fronts.”

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King said the burnout of COVID-19 has caused some nurses to resign from their jobs in labor and delivery and in the pediatric unit.

She added that community exposures to COVID-19 are forcing some nurses to stay home from work, which compounds the heavy workload and staffing shortages in their departments.

COVID-19 infections seem to put newborns and developing babies at risk

Dr. Nikolai Shalygin, a neonatologist who works in the Saint Alphonsus NICU, said there is an increase in babies who must be delivered prematurely because the mother has COVID-19, with complications.

The babies are not only born too early — a health risk on its own — but also enter the world with complications not usually seen even in premature babies, he said.

The babies “are sicker than we would expect them to be, and they’re staying in the NICU longer,” Shalygin said.

Tragedies in Idaho hospitals, as stillbirths rise

Some pregnant women who are hospitalized with COVID-19 recover, only to go home without a baby.

Dr. Lauren Miller, perinatal health director at St. Luke’s Health System, said her team is focused on trying to get entire families vaccinated to protect children as well as pregnant moms.

“(In this) wave of COVID, we have seen far more admissions” among pregnant women, she said. Many of them end up in the ICU or on ventilators.

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Their critical condition isn’t just from COVID-19 itself, she says. The women end up with secondary infections, as their bodies try to fight the virus.

Miller and Bramwell said they’re noticing more tragic outcomes: stillbirths. The babies are dead upon delivery, with no explanation aside from the mother’s COVID-19.

“I have personally seen several cases during the last couple of weeks,” Miller said.

The mothers have no pre-existing risk factors, aside from pregnancy, Miller said. They’re young, fit and healthy. They’re just unvaccinated, she said.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more.

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