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Pediatric hospitals in North Texas are finding 'the new normal' after COVID-19 surge

A healthcare worker administers a vaccine through a needle in the arm of a young girl.
Nam Y. Huh
/
AP
A healthcare worker administrates a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a student during a vaccination clinic for ages 5 - 11 in Wheeling, Ill.

Pediatric hospitals across North Texas are taking stock after a year of unpredictability and stress due to the COVID-19 surge across the state.

Pediatric hospitals across North Texas weathered the COVID-19 surge over the past few months. Now, with more children eligible for vaccines, hospitals are finding a new normal.

Cindy Darnell Bowens, medical director for the pediatric ICU with Children’s Health Dallas, says the current number of children hospitalized with COVID is much lower than it was over the summer.

“For the past four weeks, we have had lower numbers of acutely ill patients,” Darnell Bowens said. “What we continue to have in the ICU are patients who are still in the recovery phase for COVID.”

Suzanne Whitworth, medical director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, says inpatient numbers have also been on the decline.

At the height of the surge in September, Cook Children’s had around 50 to 60 kids hospitalized with COVID.

“When we were in the middle of that, it was a very overwhelming feeling for all of us,” Whitworth said. “We were worried about capacity. We were worried about the deluge of people coming to the emergency room and the urgent care centers. It was very, very busy.”

Whitworth says now it’s between four and eight patients on a given day.

“There is no question that delta was worse than anyone thought it would be,” Whitworth said. "I remember saying when delta started, 'It's going to be okay. We have a lot of vaccinated people. I think they're going to trickle in and out of the hospital.' Within a month, I was choking on those words. It's very hard to predict."

Cook Children's 08-20-21
Kim Brown
/
Cook Children's Medical Center
At Cook Children's Urgent Care in Fort Worth, the wait times would sometimes be more than four hours at the height of the coronavirus surge.

Expecting COVID-19 cases to rise over the holiday season

Both Whitworth and Darnell Bowens said they expect COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations to increase now that the holiday season is underway, as people will be in close quarters with more people than usual. Those trends also mirror what happened in 2020.

The first U.S. case of the COVID-19 omicron variant was identified on Wednesday in a person who traveled from South Africa.

Darnell Bowens said she hopes with the recent approval of booster vaccines for all adults, as well as the Pfizer vaccine being greenlit for children between 5 and 11 years old, the rise in cases won’t be as severe as the summer and fall spikes.

“My hope is that a lot of things that people experienced—long wait times, being worried about actually being able to get an ICU bed—that those things won’t be an issue, because we’ve been able to put in place a lot of the strategies that should alleviate those things,” Darnell Bowens said.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services , more than 300,000 children in that age group have been vaccinated with at least one dose. That means a little over 10% of children who are eligible in Texas have been vaccinated so far.

Whitworth said it’s too early to tell what the impact of children getting vaccinated will be, but “probably a month from now, we may be able to see if things are starting to level out for that population.”

Finding a new normal during continued change

While cases have plateaued statewide, Darnell Bowens with Children’s Health in Dallas said it’s tough to figure out what the new baseline is.

“In health care, I don’t know that we are talking about normal yet,” Darnell Bowens said. “Everybody is still talking about the new normal. There’s always a little bit of COVID lingering around. I don’t know if anybody is thinking we’ll be back to 2019.”

Whitworth with Cook Children’s said “we left normal a long time ago.”

“I still feel leery about the future,” Whitworth said. “I think a lot of us are ready to say, ‘Okay, good, that’s behind us. Good, that’s over,’ and I don’t really know when that’s going to be. I think that’s just still the unknown.”

Both Whitworth and Darnell Bowens urge people to get vaccinated, as it’s the best way to prevent against hospitalization and serious illness due to COVID-19.

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

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Corrected: December 1, 2021 at 10:19 AM CST
A previous version of this story stated that at the height of the surge in September, Cook Children’s had around 30 kids hospitalized with COVID. It was actually 50 to 60 children.