Experts: Kids are 'reservoirs' for COVID. Here's why they say youth should be vaccinated.

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Emily Boehm, of Enfield, receives her first dose of Pfizer vaccine at the Community Health Center Inc. mass vaccination site at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Emily Boehm, of Enfield, receives her first dose of Pfizer vaccine at the Community Health Center Inc. mass vaccination site at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Dan Haar / Hearst Connecticut Media

Children ages 12 to 15 will start getting vaccinated this week, and though experts say preventing transmission of the coronavirus is one of the main reasons to inoculate children, serious COVID-19 infections have occurred among this age group.

The exact number of children infected and hospitalized with COVID-19 is unknown since data is collected for broader age groups, but doctors at Connecticut hospitals said pediatric cases have occurred throughout the pandemic.

“We've had over 30 children in that age group admitted to the hospital since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Tom Murray, associate medical director for infection prevention for Yale New Haven Children's Hospital. “Unfortunately, about a dozen of those have been admitted to the intensive care unit. And a handful of those have actually required a breathing tube.”

On Tuesday, Connecticut officials announced 409 new COVID-19 infections with 2.77 percent of the total tests performed in the previous 24 hours coming back positive.

Nine fewer patients were hospitalized patients, bringing the statewide total to 271. Two more people in Connecticut died with COVID-19, increasing the total to 8,156 fatalities since the start of the pandemic.

Statewide coronavirus infection data does not specifically track children ages 12 to 15, who will now be able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine after federal approval this week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also does not track data specific to this group.

Of the 343,954 total COVID-19 cases identified in Connecticut, nearly 41,000 are among patients between the ages of 10 and 19 years old. There have been three deaths associated with the disease in that age group.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said Connecticut infection data on children ages 12 to 15 was not available.

Hospital officials statewide say the number of children that age in need of medical treatment due to COVID infections have not been as high as among older residents. However, they say the vaccine will provide some much-needed protection.

“Yes, we certainly have seen kids in this age group hospitalized with COVID,” said Jody Terranova, assistant professor of pediatrics at UConn and director of the Burgdorf Health Center Pediatric Clinic in Hartford. “While children in general are at ‘lower risk’ from COVID, they are not at ‘no risk.’ Just like we see in adults, children with underlying conditions such as obesity and asthma are at higher risk and otherwise healthy kids have also become severely ill and can have long-term effects from the illness.”

“Vaccinating this age group will not only protect them at an individual level but also help prevent spread in the community,” she said.

Doctors associated with Nuvance Health, which runs Danbury, New Milford, Norwalk and Sharon hospitals among other facilities in Connecticut and New York, “have cared for children within that age group who have COVID-19 — the severity of illness ranging from asymptomatic and mild to symptomatic, with fever, cough, gastrointestinal illness, headache or loss of taste and/or smell,” Nuvance spokesperson Sarah Colomello said.

Vaccinating children ages 12 to 15 is “a tremendous opportunity” to help return life to something approaching normalcy, said Dr. Frank Illuzzi, medical director for specialty services in the Fairfield Region at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport.

Children in this age bracket “want to get back to school. They want their lives back,” Illuzzi said. For that to happen, he said, vaccination is essential.

Though children in this group are infected with COVID-19 less frequently and not as severely as adults, Illuzzi said they do get ill.

“While it’s uncommon, I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s rare that kids get very sick,” Illuzzi said. “We’ve definitely seen 12- to 15-year-olds get sick.”

Murray said younger patients tend to display different symptoms than their parents and grandparents.

“The older the child is, the closer it gets to the adult presentation,” he said. “In general, in kids, they can have more GI symptoms, more nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and then as you get into the even younger kids, you get a higher proportion that are asymptomatic or have very, very mild symptoms.”

There is also a concern over multisystem inflammatory syndrome, known as MIS-C, which Colomello said “is a hyper-inflammatory response with rare but serious symptoms such as respiratory distress, heart problems, low blood pressure and shock.”

According to the CDC, there have been as many as 49 cases of MIS-C identified in Connecticut since the start of the pandemic.

“Even in the last few weeks, we've had several cases admitted to the hospital with that syndrome,” Murray said. “It's a post-COVID complication, it typically occurs around three to six weeks after COVID. It can involve the heart and a variety of other organ systems, the belly, the kidneys. We have continued to see cases of that throughout the pandemic.”

Whether the vaccine will prevent or ameliorate the symptoms from MIS-C remains unknown.

“We hope that that's true, but we're really not going to know until the vaccine is administered to a large number of children, because it's a very rare complication,” Murray said. “The studies with kids so far were about 2,000 kids, 1,000 of whom received a vaccine. That is just not nearly enough kids to see if it will have an impact on the MIS-C, but certainly, we're hoping that it does.”

There is also the issue of transmission. Children ages 12 to 15 do get sick from a coronavirus infection, though not at the same rates as adults, and they are very good at transmitting disease, experts said.

“When they do get sick, they are transmitting the disease,” Illuzzi said. “They are reservoirs for it.”

Children that age tend to spread disease very well, Murray said. Their bodies are almost as developed as an adult body.

“Some of it has to do with your ability to send your infected droplets into the air. When a 15-year-old coughs, it can be an adult cough,” he said. “When a 3-year-old coughs, it tends not to be as forceful.”

As for whether or not children ages 12 to 15 will get vaccinated, Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging at Yale School of Public Health, said on Twitter that signs are positive.

“Roughly one-third of all 16- and 17-year-olds have received at least one shot, despite a late start in access,” he tweeted. “This bodes well for expanding access to 12 to 15-year-olds.”

Staff writer Amanda Cuda contributed to this story.