Rantz: Seattle Children’s won’t provide data to back up COVID-child claims
Seattle Children’s Hospital claims there’s an uptick in children experiencing severe COVID cases, which includes kids hospitalized or placed in intensive care. This matches a similar narrative coming from a variety of public health officials nationwide.
But what’s the data actually say, and what’s the context? Is there actually a surge? If so, we should know the actual numbers and when the surge began. Are kids in the hospital dealing with underlying health conditions, or is the delta variant sending otherwise healthy kids to the ICU? These are relevant questions as policymakers and school officials claim the data suggests kids must wear masks in the classroom.
Seattle Children’s refuses to answer questions, ignoring six requests for data over the course of several days made over the phone and email. But there is some data publicly available suggesting the threat is being overstated. And a nurse from the hospital offered insight into what they’re seeing.
How many kids are hospitalized by COVID in Washington?
As we move closer to the start of in-person learning, the media focuses on how the new delta variant impacts young kids. Two recent local news reports citing Seattle Children’s suggest an alarming uptick in children with COVID, including some being admitted to the ICU.
KOMO TV reports doctors at Seattle Children’s said they are seeing more severe COVID-19 cases from kids and that some had to be hospitalized. Dr. John McGuire from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s explained the cases are coming from families where the adults haven’t yet been vaccinated.
On KIRO 7 TV, there was a similar report with a similar message from Seattle Children’s.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of kids needing hospitalization and needing intensive care,” Dr. McGuire told KIRO 7 TV.
But something was missing from both reports: data. Neither story included details on how many more cases the hospital is seeing than normally. They didn’t even say how many children are being hospitalized.
Seattle Children’s won’t respond to questions
I’ve reached out to Seattle Children’s six times by the time I published this piece.
My questions weren’t “gotcha” questions, nor particularly difficult to track down answers. I asked them to provide the number of children who have been hospitalized with COVID during the purported surge and how many came in for treatment before being sent home. I asked whether the hospitalized kids were otherwise healthy or if they had any underlying health conditions.
If cases are on the rise, but the children are otherwise asymptomatic or recover quickly, that obviously demands a different response than if we see a true surge of kids barely able to function due to illness. These details are important and come with policy implications.
If kids are generally fine after the COVID diagnosis, it could also indicate the case rate amongst kids has always been high. However, perhaps due to the higher delta viral load, kids weren’t going in for testing. Are they coming in for testing more so now because of new parental fears of delta?
“We’re seeing many more individuals of all ages, children that we hadn’t seen before probably because they had minimal symptoms. Now they have symptoms, and their parents are aware of it; physicians aware of it,” Dr. Bob Lutz, the Washington State Department of Health COVID-19 medical adviser, told KIRO 7 TV.
Moreover, is local data in line with a new report that says 19% of new cases come from kids? Being higher or lower than the national average also has policy implications.
Seattle Children’s simply will not respond.
A Seattle Children’s nurse speaks out
Seattle Children’s leaned into anecdotes in local media reports but went light on the actual data. That should raise a red flag — not that they’re necessarily lying, but that perhaps they’re taking on the narrative to help fuel a goal of getting more parents and eligible teens vaccinated.
A nurse from Seattle Children’s contacted me after hearing I was not getting any answers from her employer. She confirmed her identity with me.
She says her hospital beds are getting full, but it’s not due to kids with COVID. Indeed, she claimed last week there were three kids in isolation, but that “doesn’t even mean they are symptomatic, just that they tested positive, yet are in the hospital for something and need to be isolated from the general population.”
I could not confirm the details from this nurse because Seattle Children’s will not respond to any questions. But it does match closely with publicly available data.
Data doesn’t match the narrative
Whether looking at Seattle Children’s or King County as a whole, the data doesn’t match some of the fearmongering narratives.
According to a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there were four pediatric COVID-19 admissions at Seattle Children’s as of July 23, per a seven-day sum. The seven-day average COVID pediatric patients in the hospital was 20. We do not know if these kids were otherwise healthy kids, nor do we know if they are 6 or 16. These details are important.
And data from July 30? It shows N/A kids in the ICU and 24 hospitalized.
HHS also lists the seven-day sum of ER visits that lead to a COVID-19 diagnosis. There’s hardly a surge, according to these numbers. Seattle Children’s saw 827 COVID positive cases over the seven-day sum of ER visit dated July 30. That’s lower than the 937 they saw in June. May saw 807 cases, and April reported 1,122.
Countywide hospitalizations aren’t surging, either
Looking at adults, we also see a trend: just not the one some politicians and outlets claim. There’s no doubt been an increase in COVID positive cases in King County, though nowhere near the peak in October 2020.
According to the Public Health — Seattle & King County dashboard, the county saw the highest case numbers on Oct. 25, 2020. At the time, the seven-day average case count was 768. On Aug. 4, 2021 — the latest date with data as I write this story — the seven-day average was 414. Still, it’s clearly on the rise from June and July of this year.
But hospitalizations tell a different story. As of July 31 — the latest date with data as I write this story — the seven-day COVID hospitalization rate was 11. And the seven-day average of COVID deaths on this date? Zero.
Hospitalizations have indeed gone up, but to claim a surge betrays the data. It doesn’t even appear to be COVID patients hospitalized in high numbers — it’s patients with other issues. Over the last seven days (as of August 10), HHS says COVID patients in King County hospitals only account for 3% of the beds. In ICUs, COVID patients account for 9% of the beds.
Why this data matters
Being upfront about the data will quell the fears many parents and kids have about delta.
None of this is to say that delta doesn’t pose a threat or that COVID shouldn’t be taken seriously. A new study in the Lancet looking at 1,700 kids ages 5-17 showed only 4.4% experienced symptoms lasting more than a month. That’s low, but it shows symptoms can be long-lasting for kids. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence showing kids can take on severe COVID symptoms due to the variant. But thousands of kids aren’t getting sent to our local ICUs, despite what some of the coverage may have you think.
As Bernhard Wiedermann, an infectious diseases specialist at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., told NBC News, it will take some time to see if delta is a more virulent strain for kids than the original. Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, believes it’s more contagious but not more virulent. The current 19% infection rate amongst kids is up from 14.5% of nationwide cases.
Overstating threats makes the public less likely to listen to and trust advice coming from public health officials.
The data in some context
Previous data confirmed kids without a significant underlying health condition can fare well with COVID. But they can get sick — some serious.
Children represented less than one-quarter of 1% of all COVID-19 deaths nationwide, with some states reporting under 0.03% of all child coronavirus cases resulting in death. Washington state reports 0% of COVID deaths amongst kids.
I suspect this new narrative is pushed to compel more adults and eligible children and teens to get the vaccine. But that’s not a good way to convince people to get vaccinated. It’s manipulative, pushing people away from doing the very thing you want them to do.
People should get the vaccine in consultation with their doctors if they want it. That’s what I did. The data is compelling in that it keeps you from getting seriously sick if you were to contract COVID as a breakthrough case. But compelling data isn’t worthwhile if no one trusts it. And when politicians and public health officials make claims without the data to back them up, they’re giving us reasons not to trust them.
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