COVID-19 cases in Colorado’s school-aged children more than doubled in the past three weeks as a new school year began, with the increase most notable among children ages 6 to 11 — a group that is not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Overall, the state reported 2,661 new cases among Coloradans ages 6 to 17 the week of Aug. 29, according to data from the state health department.
“The state has seen a significant increase in the number of pediatric patients infected with COVID-19,” said Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “It’s not surprising, given that within the last few weeks, kids have gone back to school.”
While most children don’t experience severe COVID cases, there is a concern more infections will mean more hospitalizations at a time when hospitals are already “under significant strain” with an uptick in other respiratory viruses that don’t normally circulate this time of year, Carney said.
It’s to the point that Carney said Children’s Hospital Colorado is exploring the possibility of postponing elective surgeries — a move the hospital has not made since the pandemic began in March 2020.
From 347 to 2,661 cases in seven weeks
COVID-19 infections among children and teens have been rising since July, and pediatricians expect the trend to continue. Still, it is a small portion of the state’s overall school-aged population of 859,784 children.
During the week of Aug. 29, the state recorded 1,319 new COVID-19 cases among children ages 6 to 11 — up 97 cases from the previous week’s 1,013 and more than double the 485 cases reported the week of Aug. 8.
Douglas County School District was among the earliest in the state to start the school year — Aug. 9 — meaning infection data from the week of Aug. 8 did not include any cases that resulted from spread within Douglas County schools. Jeffco Public Schools started back eight days after Douglas County, and Denver Public Schools were among the last with an Aug. 23 start date.
While the number of cases last week are a small percentage of the 412,899 6-11-year-olds in Colorado — 0.3% — it is the highest number of weekly infections recorded in the group in 2021.
Cases also are increasing among teenagers who are eligible for the vaccine, with the state reporting 1,342 cases among ages 12-17 last week. That’s 414 more than the 928 cases the previous week and triple the 440 cases recorded on Aug. 8, according to the data.
As of last week, the state health department reported 42 outbreaks in K-12 schools, involving at least 354 students and 47 staff members.
But COVID-19 outbreaks at K-12 schools in Colorado nearly doubled in the past week, with 80 schools reporting more than five cases apiece as of Wednesday. It’s a level of school outbreaks not seen since last November — and at that time it only took two connected cases at the same location to be declared an outbreak by state public health officials.
It’s unclear how much of the rise in pediatric cases of COVID-19 can be attributed directly to the return of in-person school. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which noted that infections began to rise earlier in the summer, did not respond that question from The Denver Post.
“Parents/guardians should be vigilant and make sure their children are following public health guidance both in and outside of school,” a CDPHE spokesperson said in an email. “COVID-19 transmission can occur in the school setting, especially when layered protections are not in place.”
Hospital capacity concerns
A concern is that when COVID-19 infections rise, the number of children and teens with severe illnesses — like the rare inflammatory syndrome MIS-C or long COVID — will increase, Carney said.
“It’s still a significant number of patients at are at risk of getting (severely) sick,” he said. “We can’t just rely on the hope that at some point the numbers will go down because we have not seen that indication yet.”
Hospitalizations typically lag by about two weeks after increases in infections. The data from the state health department is also incomplete, because the agency does not include counts in the database analyzed by The Denver Post fewer than five patients.
During the week of Aug. 22, which is the most recent data available, 71 children ages 6 to 17 hospitalized with COVID-19 — up from 40 cases the previous week.
The state has a limited number of pediatric beds — 700 — and some may be used to treat adult patients, said Julie Lonborg, senior vice president of the Colorado Hospital Association. On the other hand, about 200 adult beds could be converted to care for children.
But there are only 58 pediatric intensive-care-unit beds in the state and it’s unclear how many more can be added because it will largely depend on overall hospital capacity, Lonborg said.
As of Wednesday morning, Children’s Hospital Colorado was at 72% capacity for its intensive care units in in Aurora and Colorado Springs.
Broomfield resident Amanda Brunning said her 5-year-old son was supposed to have surgery on his intestines this week, but Children’s Hospital told her Friday it would have to be postponed because surgical staff were needed in other units.
While her son’s condition isn’t life-threatening, it does require him to undergo nightly enemas, which are both uncomfortable and frightening for a kid who doesn’t understand, she said.
“This is a surgery that’s supposed to help his quality of life,” said Brunning, who added the hospital hasn’t told her when he might be able to get the surgery.
She’s concerned that the virus’ spread among kids could affect her son, considering his disability would put him at a higher risk of complications if he gets infected at school.
“Your actions do affect other people, regardless of where you stand on masks or vaccines,” she said. “And now it’s affecting our kids.”
Denver Post reporter Meg Wingerter contributed.