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COVID-19 in children and adolescents: Disease burden and severity


My first thought on this column was maybe Pediatric News has written sufficiently about SARS-CoV-2 infection, and it is time to move on. However, the agenda for the May 12th Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice includes a review of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine safety and immunogenicity data for the 12- to 15-year-old age cohort that suggests the potential for vaccine availability and roll out for early adolescents in the near future and the need for up-to-date knowledge about the incidence, severity, and long-term outcome of COVID-19 in the pediatric population.

Dr. Stephen I. Pelton, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology, Boston University schools of medicine and public health.

Dr. Stephen I. Pelton

Updating and summarizing the pediatric experience for the pediatric community on what children and adolescents have experienced because of SARS-CoV-2 infection is critical to address the myriad of questions that will come from colleagues, parents, and adolescents themselves. A great resource, published weekly, is the joint report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.1 As of April 29, 2021, 3,782,724 total child COVID-19 cases have been reported from 49 states, New York City (NYC), the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Children represent approximately 14% of cases in the United States and not surprisingly are an increasing proportion of total cases as vaccine impact reduces cases among older age groups. Nearly 5% of the pediatric population has already been infected with SARS-CoV-2. Fortunately, compared with adults, hospitalization, severe disease, and mortality remain far lower both in number and proportion than in the adult population. Cumulative hospitalizations from 24 states and NYC total 15,456 (0.8%) among those infected, with 303 deaths reported (from 43 states, NYC, Guam, and Puerto Rico). Case fatality rate approximates 0.01% in the most recent summary of state reports. One of the limitations of this report is that each state decides how to report the age distribution of COVID-19 cases resulting in variation in age range; another is the data are limited to those details individual states chose to make publicly available.

Although children do not commonly develop severe disease, and the case fatality is low, there are still insights to be learned from understanding risk features for severe disease. Preston et al. reviewed discharge data from 869 medical facilities to describe patients 18 years or younger who had an inpatient or emergency department encounter with a primary or secondary COVID-19 discharge diagnosis from March 1 through October 31, 2020.2 They reported that approximately 2,430 (11.7%) children were hospitalized and 746, nearly 31% of those hospitalized, had severe COVID disease. Those at greatest risk for severe disease were children with comorbid conditions and those less than 12 years, compared with the 12- to 18-year age group. They did not identify race as a risk for severe disease in this study. Moreira et al. described risk factors for morbidity and death from COVID in children less than 18 years of age3 using CDC COVID-NET, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19–associated hospitalization surveillance network. They reported a hospitalization rate of 4.7% among 27,045 cases. They identified three risk factors for hospitalization – age, race/ethnicity, and comorbid conditions. Thirty-nine children (0.19%) died; children who were black, non-Hispanic, and those with an underlying medical condition had a significantly increased risk of death. Thirty-three (85%) children who died had a comorbidity, and 27 (69%) were African American or Hispanic/Latino. The U.S. experience in children is also consistent with reports from the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and South Korea.4 Deaths from COVID-19 were uncommon but relatively more frequent in older children, compared with younger age groups among children less than 18 years of age in these countries.

Acute COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) do not predominantly target the neurologic systems; however, neurologic complications have been reported, some of which appear to result in long-lasting disability. LaRovere et al. identified 354 (22%) of 1,695 patients less than 21 years of age with acute COVID or MIS-C who had neurologic signs or symptoms during their illness. Among those with neurologic involvement, most children had prior neurologic deficits, mild symptoms, that resolved by the time of discharge. Forty-three (12%) were considered life threatening and included severe encephalopathy, stroke, central nervous system infection/demyelination, Guillain-Barre syndrome or variant, or acute cerebral edema. Several children, including some who were previously healthy prior to COVID, had persistent neurologic deficits at discharge. In addition to neurologic morbidity, long COVID – a syndrome of persistent symptoms following acute COVID that lasts for more than 12 weeks without alternative diagnosis – has also been described in children. Buonsenso et al. assessed 129 children diagnosed with COVID-19 between March and November 2020 in Rome, Italy.5 Persisting symptoms after 120 days were reported by more than 50%. Symptoms like fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, insomnia, respiratory problems, and palpitations were most common. Clearly, further follow-up of the long-term outcomes is necessary to understand the full spectrum of morbidity resulting from COVID-19 disease in children and its natural history.

The current picture of COVID infection in children younger than 18 reinforces that children are part of the pandemic. Although deaths in children have now exceeded 300 cases, severe disease remains uncommon in both the United States and western Europe. Risk factors for severe disease include comorbid illness and race/ethnicity with a disproportionate number of severe cases in children with underlying comorbidity and in African American and Hispanic/Latino children. Ongoing surveillance is critical as changes are likely to be observed over time as viral evolution affects disease burden and characteristics.

Dr. Pelton is professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Boston University schools of medicine and public health and senior attending physician in pediatric infectious diseases, Boston Medical Center. Email him at


1. Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. Services

2. Preston LE et al. JAMA Network Open. 2021;4(4):e215298. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.5298

3. Moreira A et al. Eur J Pediatr. 2021;180:1659-63.

4. SS Bhopal et al. Lancet 2021. doi: 10.1016/ S2352-4642(21)00066-3.

5. Buonsenso D et al. medRxiv preprint. doi: 10.1101/2021.01.23.21250375.

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