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Arkansas Children Are Becoming Sick Like Never Before During COVID Pandemic

Arkansas Children's Hospital
Michael Hibblen

As Arkansas is experiencing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases, with more than 2,800 new cases reported Thursday, kids are being impacted like never before in the pandemic. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was especially concerned about the increase in pediatric cases while announcing he was reinstating a public health emergency for the state.

Only people who are 12 and older can get vaccinated, which is a concern as schools are only a few weeks away from starting a new academic year. The latest variant is making a growing number of children sick, with Arkansas Children’s Hospital this week reporting its largest number of patients with COVID-19.

Hutchinson said Thursday there were 24 children being treated at the hospital and none had been fully immunized. Half of those, he said, were under 12-years-old and not eligible to be vaccinated.

“That makes the point that they need to be protected, first by decisions of their parents, and then secondly by school boards if they decide to take action in that regard,” Hutchinson said.

The governor is calling for members of the Arkansas General Assembly to come together for a special session, possibly as early as next week, to consider modifying or rescinding a law passed during this year’s legislative session that prohibits the state, including public school districts, from imposing mask mandates.

“This is necessary really for providing local school boards the ability to protect those who are most vulnerable, young people 12 and under as they go to school,” Hutchinson said.

Arkansas Children's Hospital Chief Clinical and Academic Officer Dr. Rick Barr spoke with KUAR's Michael Hibblen about the situation at the facility on Thursday. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation broadcast during “All Things Considered."

BARR: I have to emphasize, this is very different than what we saw earlier in the COVID pandemic with the other variants. The delta variant is acting very, very differently with respect to kids. Previously, when children were admitted and tested positive for COVID, it was often what I call an incidental finding. They were coming in the hospital for some unrelated reason, maybe a surgery or some other medical condition, and they just happened to test positive and were asymptomatic; didn't have any symptoms from their COVID viral infection.

We started seeing in June and definitely in July, kids coming in the hospital that were sick with COVID. So respiratory infections, pneumonia, requiring oxygen, requiring assistance to breathe, so that's definitely a change. And just in the month of July we've committed over 40 children to the children's hospital with COVID infections and a number of those have ended up in the intensive care unit. I have to emphasize as well that at least half of those children that we've admitted are over the age 12, so eligible for a vaccine and none, zero had been fully vaccinated. So, this is a preventable disease and we're highly encouraging parents to vaccinate. First of all, get vaccinated themselves, that's the best way to protect your children. But if your children are old enough to get a vaccine, get vaccinated themselves, and especially with school starting soon, it takes a little while for the vaccine to develop immunity against an infection, so time is of the essence and getting those vaccines in short order.

Are the majority of these kids regular healthy kids, or were these kids who had other conditions?

It's a mix. We definitely know that kids with underlying medical conditions are more at risk of developing severe COVID infections. That's as in adults, that's clear. But we've seen a number of otherwise healthy children come into the children's hospital with COVID-19 infections and even end up in the ICU if they don't have any vaccine induced immunity. So, it's not just restricted to kids with underlying medical conditions.

When this pandemic first arrived in Arkansas, the plan devised by health officials was obviously for general hospitals. How is Arkansas Children's Hospital handling this? Do you have the space and the equipment to take care of kids with COVID?

Well, we do, but it's really taxing our system. I have to emphasize, this is on the backdrop of a very, very unusual viral respiratory season that we usually see in January, but we're seeing it in July. So, in addition to COVID-19, we're seeing a lot of respiratory syncytial virus, RSV infections, and other viruses causing kids to be sick and requiring admission to the hospital. So our month of July, we're going to be at an all-time high in terms of what we would normally see in July in terms of kids coming into the hospital. So, it's just on top of a really, really serious time for kids. And we've had to make a lot of modifications to take care of the number of children with COVID that we're seeing. They require very special isolation rooms with special airflow to keep everybody safe. And so, every day we're scrambling to modify rooms to make sure we can very safely take care of those children, but also protect other children in the hospital.

I have a nine-year-old daughter, too young, obviously, to get vaccinated. She's excited to be returning to school, but obviously like a lot of parents in my position, I'm scared to death. What do you tell parents who have kids who are going to be returning to school in a few weeks?

Well, school is incredibly important. We saw early on the pretty dramatic social, emotional and mental health complications from the pandemic, from social isolation and kids not being in school. So, it's really, really important kids go back to school. But that can be done safely with masking, with the use of hand sanitizer and social distancing indoors, all those preventative measures that we know really, really work. The science is very good on those now.

And then I have to emphasize that many kids, if they contract, if they develop a COVID-19 infection, they've gotten it from someone in their family. So, getting people, getting other family members who are eligible, who are old enough to get a vaccine, getting them vaccinated is the best way to protect younger children. And then finally, we hope that by the end of the year we'll have a vaccine approval for kids five to 12. That study is being done right now and is being monitored by the FDA. We hope that all the data from that will be in by the end of September, and hopefully by the end of this year we'll have an FDA approved vaccine for children five and older instead of 12 and older.

And finally, based on the trends, do you think conditions will continue to get worse for children and that your hospital will have to take any steps to put children elsewhere or expand into different wards, change how you're handling this right now?

Well, we will modify any way we can to make sure that we can safely take care of every child that needs us. We're the only tertiary, meaning the highest level of care for kids in the state. It's our mission to be able to take care of every child that needs us. So, we'll make modifications, et cetera, as we need to.

I would emphasize also, we're short on nurses right now. That's a big part – every hospital is – that’s a big part of this crisis. So, we're looking to hire new nurses and train them. It's a special place for taking care of children and our nursing staff is incredibly dedicated and specialized in what they do, but that is one thing we're looking very closely at is how can we hire more nurses to take care of kids.

And I'm sure the nurses you do have are quite exhausted.

They are tired. It's been a very, very busy summer, and with this COVID surge in children on top of it, it's added to that. But they're extremely dedicated and they are doing an excellent job and we just hope that the community can help us out by getting vaccinated.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.
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