What Parents of Kids Under 5 Need to Know About Omicron

  • New hospital admissions for children with COVID-19 have spiked, according to the CDC.
  • Although hospitalizations are up, deaths for children remain low.
  • There are broad practices we can implement to help keep one another safe.

As Omicron cases rise dramatically in the United States, kids are now developing COVID-19 at far higher rates than previous surges.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), new hospital admissions for kids with COVID-19 have increased 66 percent on average for the week ending January 1.

The alarming statistic has parents wondering what they can do to keep their kids safe — particularly children under 5 years old who are not yet eligible for a vaccine.

The good news is that while hospitalizations are up, deaths for children remain low.

The majority of COVID-related deaths are not happening among children. Still, keeping children out of the hospital and away from serious COVID-19 cases remains a top priority for parents, so we reached out to experts to find out what parents of kids under 5 years old need to know about Omicron. 

At the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to what makes the most sense for each specific family. That said, there are broad practices we all can do in order to keep each other safe.

What is the risk for children under age 5 to develop COVID-19? How has Omicron affected the young and unvaccinated?

“Omicron seems to be much more contagious than previous strains of COVID-19. The number of hospitalizations due to COVID in children is definitely increasing; however, this is largely due to the fact that such a large number of children are getting infected,” said Dr. Gopi Desai, pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian Medical Group Queens and an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“The chance of hospitalization is still relatively low, however with such a large number of children getting infected, a significant group of children are still ending up hospitalized,” Desai said. “Since these children do not have the benefit of vaccination to protect them, they remain amongst the more vulnerable groups.”

Why are hospitalization rates rising for children?

According to Dr. Jennifer Lighter, hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health and pediatric epidemiologist and pediatric stewardship director, children still represent only 2 percent of COVID hospitalizations.

That said, there are a variety of reasons why hospitalizations for children are rising amid the surge of Omicron.

“Our hospitalization rate is higher for children less than 1 years of age than it is for children between 5 and 11, and that is because there is a lower threshold to admit babies with COVID. Also, if a baby under 2 months of age has a fever, they are automatically admitted,” said Lighter, as one of the reasons for a higher hospitalization rate. 

Another, of course, is that the virus targets the unvaccinated, and kids under 5 years old are still highly vulnerable because they’re not yet vaccinated.

Should kids be going to daycare or staying home? If going to daycare is OK, what measures should be in place?

“There is no right answer to this question that will apply to every family. Each family will have to consider the risks and benefits of their childcare options to determine what is best for them,” said Desai.

“For the majority of families with children in daycare, this is a necessity to allow caregivers to work. This risk of daycare will depend on a number of things — the size of the classroom/center, whether caregivers are vaccinated, and whether masks are worn correctly by caregivers and children,” Desai added. “The more of these protective measures that are in place, the lower the risk of COVID transmission.”

“Children should be in daycare [if it’s possible],” Lighter said. “They should be wearing face masks, the same as kids in school have to wear. Daycares should upgrade their ventilation systems and if they cannot, they should pop up the window. Kids should eat outside if possible. And, again, every child over the age of 2 should be wearing a face mask.”

Should parents with young kids avoid traveling in settings like airplanes or buses? What measures should be in place if traveling is necessary?

According to Desai, “Any situation involving crowds and strangers in close quarters is going to put you and your family at a higher risk of being exposed to COVID, given the high positivity rates around the country and the highly contagious nature of this strain.”

“If it is possible to avoid crowded modes of transportation during this wave, that is the safest,” Desai said. “If travel is necessary, make sure to keep a surgical mask on everyone older than 2 years old and to wash hands frequently. Keep your distance from other households when possible.”

“COVID-19 is nothing like the flu in adults,” noted Lighter, meaning that for adult patients, COVID is much worse than the flu. “But in children the viruses are analogous. If a parent puts restrictions on traveling for the flu, then it makes sense for traveling for COVID. It really has the same health impact in children — both the flu and COVID. It is not the same in adults.”

What are some of the questions you’ve received from concerned parents? How have you answered them?

“The most common question that I get is, ‘My child tested positive for COVID, what can I give him/her?’ For young children who test positive for COVID, there aren’t any special medications that they can get at this time. It is a good idea to speak with your child’s doctor to discuss their individual case, especially if they have any underlying medical problems,” said Desai.

“The best advice I generally give is that COVID is a virus just like so many others that children get, so focus on giving the child plenty of fluids and ensuring they get lots of rest. Watch out for any signs of difficulty breathing or dehydration and call your pediatrician if you have any concerns,” Desai added.

What are your biggest recommendations for keeping families with kids under age 5 safe and healthy?

“The best thing to do is to make sure everyone in the home who is eligible gets vaccinated and boosted. The best way to protect infants from COVID is for moms to get vaccinated and boosted during pregnancy. High levels of antibodies transfer over to babies and keep them protected for the first few months of life,” said Lighter.

“I recommend avoiding large gatherings, a surgical mask for children over the age of 2, and washing hands frequently,” Desai added. “Stay outdoors if possible/weather permitting. And importantly, stay home if anyone in the family is sick and make sure that others that you are seeing are not sick.”

“We have a lot more information now than we did at the start of this pandemic, and we can see that the cases go in waves. We should use this knowledge to our advantage and be cautious during surges so that we can take advantage of the times when cases are low to enjoy time with our friends and family,” Desai said.