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Health & Wellness

More North Texas Kids Are Testing Positive For COVID. What’s Going On?

Elementary school students walk into school wearing red shirts and black bottoms, face masks and backpacks.
LM Otero
/
AP
Students arrive on the first day of school at an elementary school in Richardson.

Children under 12 aren’t eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine yet, but many are back in school in person. That and other factors has contributed to a sharp rise in case numbers among kids in the region and the state.

Across Texas, more children are testing positive for coronavirus. Since school started in August, more than 50,000 students across the state have tested positive for coronavirus, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Why Are We Seeing So Many More Kids Test Positive?

Dr. James Cutrell, an associate professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said he attributes the increase in cases to a few different factors.

“There are just so many more cases that we're seeing in kids because of relaxation around masking [and] summer activities,” Cutrell said. “People were much more mobile and going to different activities in large gatherings.”

The delta variant, which is the most prevalent coronavirus strain both in Texas and the United States, is more easily transmitted than previous strains. It’s accounting for the surge in coronavirus cases across the state, including the increases in pediatric cases.

The biggest factor is in-person schooling with conflicting messages over masking.

So What Are School Policies Around Masking?

In short, it’s complicated. Since Gov. Greg Abbott passed an executive order that restricted local leaders from implementing mask mandates and other overarching health rules to respond to the ongoing pandemic, each county and school district has had to make individual choices. It’s left a lot of parents and caregivers anxious about what to do.

Fort Worth ISD joined La Joya ISD in a lawsuit against the governor to allow masks in schools. While schools in San Antonio had mandates blocked temporarily by the Texas Supreme Court, many of the districts are still upholding masking requirements.

In Dallas County, both Dallas ISD and County Judge Clay Jenkins are in ongoing litigation with the governor to be able to require masks in schools. Dallas ISD is requiring students and teachers to wear masks.

Dr. Corwin Warmink, who works for Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth as the director of emergency services, said it’s almost certainstudents will get sick if they go to school without a mask.

“There’s rampant illnesses in school, not just COVID,” Warmink said. “So if you want your child to get sick, send them to school without a mask. It’s not a question of if they’ll get sick, it’s when.”

School districts across North Texas have reported a rise in positive cases since returning to school at the beginning of August. Positive cases doubled among Fort Worth ISD students between the weeks of Aug. 15 and Aug. 22, from more than 570 to a little more than 1,000. Dallas ISD has similar numbers, with cases since the start of the school year topping 1,300.

The Dallas, Denton and Fort Worth school districts have all reported hundreds of positive student and staff cases since Aug.2. Some schools, like Boyd ISD, north of Fort Worth, temporarily closed to handle the increase in cases.

More Cases Among Children Puts A Strain On Pediatric Hospitals

Dr. Ana Rios, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Cook Children’s, said for the most part, kids who have tested positive have had mild symptoms. Their risk of hospitalization and death are much lower than for adults.

“Many of the children present with a little cold, or some others don't even have symptoms,” Rios said. “They are not even aware that they are sick.”

While children might have milder symptoms, pediatric hospitals are seeing an exponential increase in both positive cases and demand for services. UT Southwestern Medical Center reported that hospital admissions in North Texas among youth have increased beyond the previous January surge.

Warmink with Cook Children’s said the hospital saw an all-time record of kids in the ER: 601 on Monday. He said on a normal day it might be closer to 300. About half of patients are coming in with COVID-like symptoms, and that jump makes it impossible to care for everyone in a timely manner.

“If you come in for something minor in the morning, plan on spending all day with us,” Warmink said.

He said it’s the worst it’s been in the 18 years he’s worked there.

“Everything in my training and career [is] to not freak out, but I’m freaking out,” Warmink said.

The hospital had to close an urgent care location in Hurst this past weekend due to staffing shortages. Staff are either out ill or are burnt out, like many health professionals across the state.

The capacity constraints has Warmink extra concerned the hospital might see another surge in cases the weeks following Labor Day.

What Can People Do To Protect Kids?

Bottom line from health officials — get vaccinated.

“For children who are in that 0 to 11 age range and can't get the vaccine, it'll be important for the people in their lives who surround them to make sure that they're fully vaccinated, so that they can help protect those vulnerable populations," Chief State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Shuford said. "That’s true not only for the kids, but also for people who are immunocompromised.”

Children 12 years and older are approved to get the Pfizer vaccine, and trials are underway for those under 12, but there’s not a definitive timeline on when they might roll out.

Community sites, local pharmacies and public health departments are still offering vaccines. People can sign up for vaccine appointments by registering online or by calling 833-832-7067.

UT Southwestern Medical Center is still predicting hospitalizations and cases to increase across the next few weeks. Cutrell from UT Southwestern predicts cases might hit a peak in mid-September, but it’s entirely dependent on people’s behaviors.

Warmink with Cook Children’s said it’s time to go back to “the classics” — hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask, especially for kids in school, to slow the spread of the virus.

The CDC recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors.

Got a tip? Email Elena Rivera at erivera@kera.org. You can follow Elena on Twitter @elenaiswriting.

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Updated: September 3, 2021 at 9:57 AM CDT
This story was updated to reflect new data on the number of children who have tested positive for coronavirus released Sept. 3.