COVID-19 in Kids: Severe Disease Most Common in Infants, Teens

Heidi Splete

May 19, 2020

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Children and young adults in all age groups can develop severe illness after SARS-CoV-2 infection, but the oldest and youngest appear most likely to be hospitalized and possibly critically ill, based on data from a retrospective cohort study of 177 pediatric patients seen at a single center.

"Although children and young adults clearly are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, attention has focused primarily on their potential role in influencing spread and community transmission rather than the potential severity of infection in children and young adults themselves," wrote Roberta L. DeBiasi, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children's National Hospital, Washington, and colleagues.

In a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from 44 hospitalized and 133 non-hospitalized children and young adults infected with SARS-CoV-2. Of the 44 hospitalized patients, 35 were noncritically ill and 9 were critically ill. The study population ranged from 0.1-34 years of age, with a median of 10 years, which was similar between hospitalized and nonhospitalized patients. However, the median age of critically ill patients was significantly higher, compared with noncritically ill patients (17 years vs. 4 years). All age groups were represented in all cohorts. "However, we noted a bimodal distribution of patients less than 1 year of age and patients greater than 15 years of age representing the largest proportion of patients within the SARS-CoV-2–infected hospitalized and critically ill cohorts," the researchers noted. Children less than 1 year and adolescents/young adults over 15 years each represented 32% of the 44 hospitalized patients.

Overall, 39% of the 177 patients had underlying medical conditions, the most frequent of which was asthma (20%), which was not significantly more common between hospitalized/nonhospitalized patients or critically ill/noncritically ill patients. Patients also presented with neurologic conditions (6%), diabetes (3%), obesity (2%), cardiac conditions (3%), hematologic conditions (3%) and oncologic conditions (1%). Underlying conditions occurred more commonly in the hospitalized cohort (63%) than in the nonhospitalized cohort (32%).

Neurologic disorders, cardiac conditions, hematologic conditions, and oncologic conditions were significantly more common in hospitalized patients, but not significantly more common among those critically ill versus noncritically ill.

About 76% of the patients presented with respiratory symptoms including rhinorrhea, congestion, sore throat, cough, or shortness of breath – with or without fever; 66% had fevers; and 48% had both respiratory symptoms and fever. Shortness of breath was significantly more common among hospitalized patients versus nonhospitalized patients (26% vs. 12%), but less severe respiratory symptoms were significantly more common among nonhospitalized patients, the researchers noted.

Other symptoms – such as diarrhea, vomiting, chest pain, and loss of sense or smell occurred in a small percentage of patients – but were not more likely to occur in any of the cohorts.

Among the critically ill patients, eight of nine needed some level of respiratory support, and four were on ventilators.

"One patient had features consistent with the recently emerged Kawasaki disease–like presentation with hyperinflammatory state, hypotension, and profound myocardial depression," Dr. DiBiasi and associates noted.

The researchers found coinfection with routine coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, or rhinovirus/enterovirus in 4 of 63 (6%) patients, but the clinical impact of these coinfections are unclear.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the retrospective design and the ongoing transmission of COVID-19 in the Washington area, the researchers noted. "One potential bias of this study is our regional role in providing critical care for young adults age 21-35 years with COVID-19." In addition, "we plan to address the role of race and ethnicity after validation of current administrative data and have elected to defer this analysis until completed."

"Our findings highlight the potential for severe disease in this age group and inform other regions to anticipate and prepare their COVID-19 response to include a significant burden of hospitalized and critically ill children and young adults. As SARS-CoV-2 spreads within the United States, regional differences may be apparent based on virus and host factors that are yet to be identified," Dr. DeBiasi and colleagues concluded.

Robin Steinhorn, MD, serves as an associate editor for the Journal of Pediatrics. The other researchers declared no conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: DeBiasi RL et al. J Pediatr. 2020 May 6. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.007.

This article was updated 5/19/20.

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