(CNN) — The pace of COVID-19 hospitalizations is surging across the United States, with the rates for children and adults under 50 hitting their highest levels yet, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Every age group under 50 has surpassed its previous record of hospitalizations, which were recorded in the first half of January. The biggest increase was in adults ages 30 to 39 and children under 18, both of which were more than 30% higher than their previous peak, according to the CDC data.
“During this surge of the delta variant … we are seeing a significantly greater impact on our children and our teens,” Dr. Jim Fortenberry, chief medical officer at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said at a news conference Thursday, where several hospital officials in the Atlanta area warned of the impact the current surge is having on their hospitals.
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s three hospitals are now seeing more children who have COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic, Fortenberry said, with 31 children hospitalized in total.
“Many of our kids can’t get the vaccine because of their ages, so we all play a role in preventing the spread to them,” Fortenberry said. “The best way to protect all of our kids is to get vaccinated, that includes any child 12 or greater, and every one of us as adults.”
“It is the way out of the pandemic right now,” he said.
The rate of hospitalizations for all ages is still below the January high, CDC data shows. But at the current pace — an average of more than 11,000 new hospital admissions for COVID-19 over the past week — the United States might reach a record high within a month, the CDC said.
Those most at risk of experiencing severe illness and hospitalization are the unvaccinated, according to experts. Yet only 51% of the population is fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the CDC.
The alarming surge in cases, driven by the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, has been met with pleas from health experts and officials for more people to get vaccinated.
It has also spurred an often-acrimonious debate about mask mandates, especially in schools, as well as a growing realization that booster vaccine shots may be required to address waning efficacy.
Vaccinating children is priority
In the current surge, health experts are particularly concerned about children going back to school — especially those who are too young to be vaccinated.
Currently, children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccines, although clinical trials are ongoing.
Making vaccinations available to children is a priority for the Biden administration, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will evaluate the data from clinical trials quickly once it’s provided by the companies that make the vaccines.
“The COVID-19 vaccine reviews are the top priority for the FDA,” Murthy told CNN on Thursday. “And they will move quickly to make sure that a thorough review is done, but that it’s done on the fastest feasible time schedule, because we all want to protect our kids.”
Murthy indicated it was possible vaccines could be available to children under the age of 12 before the end of the year. “That’s certainly what I’m hoping for,” he said.
In the past two weeks, vaccinations among adolescents have been on the rise, leading some experts to speculate that parents who were once hesitant to get their children vaccinated are now reconsidering their decisions after seeing more young people falling ill.
Debate over masks in schools
The impact of the surge in cases has been felt in school districts that have resumed in-person classes.
In Mississippi, there have been 20,334 students who have had to quarantine due to potential COVID-19 exposures from Aug. 9-13, according to data from the state’s department of health.
The students in quarantine represent 4.6% of the total number of students in Mississippi schools, according to state enrollment figures.
And throughout Florida’s 15 largest school districts, at least 4,641 students and 1,547 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a CNN analysis. Another 19,072 students and staff members have been quarantined or isolated due to COVID-19.
Florida officials have been at odds over precautions: The Miami Dade County Public School Board voted Wednesday to implement a mask mandate without parental opt-outs, except with an excuse from a health care provider, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, earlier banning schools from mandating masks.
Asked to respond to the debate unfolding in Florida, Surgeon General Murthy said Thursday he worries about areas where schools are blocked from putting COVID-19 protection measures in place.
The science “clearly” shows that masks work to reduce infection spread, Murthy said. Additionally, strategies like contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, improved ventilation and regular testing are layers of protection that can reduce the risk for children.
“We’ve got to take a community approach to this, got to recognize that we’ve got to get through this together and take care of each other,” Murthy said. “And the scientific public health approaches have shown us that the best way to do that is to follow these layers of precaution that we’ve been talking about for the last many months.”
Meantime, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is standing by an executive order he signed last week mandating masks in schools, telling CNN Thursday, “I know what is right.”
Beshear, a Democrat, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan he would rather look back at this time knowing he did the right thing for the health of residents in his state, and not just what would be popular.
“Sending unmasked, unvaccinated kids into a poorly ventilated classroom is like holding the world’s largest chickenpox party, except instead of chickenpox it is the third leading cause of death last year.”
Boosters to be available from late September
U.S. health officials released a joint statement Wednesday about providing booster vaccine doses in the fall, if authorized by the FDA and approved by the CDC.
But experts stressed that planning for boosters does not mean that vaccinated people are not protected, and Murthy stressed that people who are fully vaccinated should still be confident about that protection.
The protection provided against what Murthy described as “the worst of COVID,” like hospitalizations, severe disease and death, “remains strong, and that is why people who are fully vaccinated should still feel good.”
Data is currently showing some waning protection against mild and moderate disease, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, and the boosters are meant to preempt the possible waning of protection against severe disease that other countries have seen.
The recent data deals primarily with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and Johnson & Johnson said Wednesday it would release more information soon on the question of boosting its one-shot vaccine.
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins likened the waning protection to realizing it is time to start looking for a gas station when driving a car.
“It’s like the gas gauge is getting kind of low,” Collins said. “That’s kind of where it is with the people that got those first doses back in January. They’re not in a crisis right now, but it’s time to start making a plan.”
Collins said he was among the experts skeptical about the need to prepare for booster shots, but he was convinced by the latest data from the CDC and overseas.
“Putting all that together, those of us looking at this and trying not to wait until the last-minute sort of said let’s work on this over the course of the next month,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday it is not likely people will need a COVID-19 vaccine booster every eight months.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Fauci told NBC’s Lester Holt, citing data from studies with booster shots that indicate “the level of antibody that has been elevated by that third shot is extraordinary.”