by Erin Beck, Kids’ Health Correspondent

At WVU Medicine, 49 babies, defined as under one year old, have been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to a WVU spokeswoman. And 362 children have been hospitalized with the virus statewide, according to the CDC.

I have been working to draw attention to the number of children who are being hospitalized, sometimes put in intensive care and requiring respirators, for COVID-19 in West Virginia. I noticed state officials weren’t reporting those numbers, so I wanted to let people know this is happening here.

The CDC began recommending vaccination for children ages 5-11 earlier this month after the FDA authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the prevention of COVID-19 to include children in that age group.

There are three children’s hospitals in West Virginia: CAMC Women and Children’s in Charleston, WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital in Morgantown, and Hoops Family Children’s Hospital in Huntington.

According to Dale Witte, spokesman for CAMC, that hospital has admitted 107 pediatric patients for COVID-19. In an email on Nov. 8, Witte said that of those, 53 were admitted after the more contagious Delta variant was detected in the state in July.

Witte said that 12 (about one in ten) required intensive care and two required ventilators. 

I’ve been interested in this, in part, because I wanted to ensure state hospitals have the resources they need to treat admitted children. Witte said the hospital has 30 pediatric beds, nine pediatric ICU beds, and 25 pediatric ventilators.

Angela Jones-Knopf, WVU Medicine spokeswoman, also sent data. In an email on Nov. 8, she said since the pandemic began, the hospitals have admitted 49 children under one year old. According to the American Medical Association, pregnant women who are vaccinated pass those antibodies on to their babies.

She also provided numbers for other age groups:

2-4 years = 11

5-7 years = 9

8-10 years = 10

11-13 years = 11

14-17 years = 40 

Jones-Knopf said they have 32 inpatient pediatric beds, 58 PICU/NICU Rooms, 25 children’s specific ICU ventilators, and 85 total Ruby Campus adults’ & children’s ICUs.

She said she was checking on the number of kids that required intensive care and ventilators, so I don’t have exact numbers. But I can tell you that late last month, a WVU Medicine pediatrician said that since July, the children’s hospital has admitted two- six kids per day, and that there had been times all of those required intensive care.

 “They’re sick and in respiratory distress, and that’s actually why they go to the intensive care unit because the level of oxygen they need is more than what we can handle on the floor,” said Dr. Kathy Moffett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at WVU Medicine Children’s Hospital. “We have not had a single vaccinated kid hospitalized due to COVID.”

Obesity has been the number one risk factor, Moffett said. They’ve also seen kids with underlying conditions of cancer and sleep apnea.

I’ve emailed Hoops Family Children’s Hospital several times, but have not received a response.

Dr. Clay Marsh, WVU’s chief health officer and the state’s “COVID czar,” told me last month that each day, members of the state’s pandemic leadership team receive a report from the West Virginia Hospital Association that includes information about adult and child hospitalizations in the state, including data on how many of those patients have required intensive care and ventilators.

I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for that information to the governor’s office, but the governor’s chief of staff, Brian Abraham, said the governor’s office doesn’t receive those emails and to ask the state Department of Health and Human Resources instead.

DHHR spokespersons have not responded to my emails, so I’ve also submitted a FOIA to that agency. (That FOIA was sent Oct. 19. I still haven’t received the records or a denial, even though state law only gives public officials five days to send the records, inform me of a time to inspect them, or deny my request.)

I also tried checking with the West Virginia Hospital Association directly. In an interview, Jim Kaufman, president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association, said the trade group also wouldn’t share the data, although he confirmed there had been a significant increase in childhood COVID-19 cases and more hospitalizations. He said the numbers were “relatively small” and that the group wanted to “protect the privacy of our patients and their families.”

I wondered if the governor’s office had asked the association not to release the numbers. Governor Jim Justice typically tries to paint a rosy picture of the state’s response, even though we have some of the lowest vaccination numbers and one of the highest current death rates in the country. 

“Did you have any communication with the governor’s office about whether or not they wanted you to release the numbers?” I said.

“We understand we provide this information to the state,” he said. “We work very closely with them for planning purposes. And we have not shared specific numbers like that from the beginning, working with the state on this. Again, it’s really to protect the patients and the families on this, especially when numbers in the pediatric side are so small on the admissions.”

I was having trouble understanding why aggregate numbers that included no ages or names would create privacy concerns, so I asked for clarification. I said that I understood that officials sometimes don’t release numbers when doing so would make it obvious who has an illness, but that I didn’t think that would be the case here. I offered an example: if teachers reported cases in their classrooms in small communities, people could narrow it down by looking at absences.

“But when I think about like, the children’s hospitals, I know that kids come from across the state,” I said. “So it doesn’t really seem like as much of a privacy concern to me. Can you help me understand that?”

He said people might know of kids that are at children’s hospitals and still be able to figure it out.

“Now, I will say early on in the pandemic, it was rare for a child to be admitted to the hospital for COVID,” he said. “With the Delta variant, we are seeing more, but overall, the numbers are still relatively small. We still have capacity. We still have the existing resources.”

“Now it’s important to note, and we’re seeing this nationally as well, you’re seeing an earlier RSV season. So you’re seeing kids being hospitalized for RSV and other conditions, which are stretching resources, but they’re still at sufficient capacity.”

Respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the CDC, but can be serious, particularly for infants and older adults.

He also told me that 90 percent of the people with COVID-19 in West Virginia ICUs are unvaccinated.

Related:

I’m also continuing to gather information about the state of children’s mental health in West Virginia, as well as about the increase in online child sexual exploitation that has occurred during the pandemic. If you have a personal experience to share regarding either of those topics, please reach out: erinb8686 at gmail.com.

Erin Beck is our Kids’ Health Correspondent. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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