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With school year beginning, health officials note more children being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals

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Dignity Health Memorial Hospital.

A slight uptick in children hospitalized with COVID-19 has caused concern that further increases may follow, especially since most students are returning to campuses for the first time since the pandemic began.

On Wednesday, Bakersfield Memorial Hospital had two children being treated in its pediatric unit. Also, a newborn was being investigated for COVID-19 at Mercy Hospital Downtown.

Memorial Hospital President and CEO Ken Keller said in a virtual press conference a higher percentage of its COVID-19 patients were children, but commented the increase was “not material.”

But that could soon change.

“I guess we’ll see now that school is back in,” his colleague Bruce Peters, president and CEO of Mercy Hospitals, chimed in.

The beginning of the school year puts large numbers of children in close contact with one another for the first time since campuses were shut down in March 2020. Although most districts opened by spring, many students remained in distance learning. Wednesday marked the first widespread return to pre-pandemic routines for most of Kern County’s youth.

A vaccine has not yet been approved for children under 12, leaving them vulnerable to outbreaks in the classroom. Some health experts predict the spread of COVID-19 among students is inevitable.

“These kids are going to get infected. It’s just a matter of time,” said Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer for Mercy Hospital Southwest. “Everyone is going to get infected. Luckily, for the most part, kids do well. But the key to the parents is if you have a kid who comes home sick, the bigger thing is you keep them away from those who have those (comorbidities).”

Since January of this year, the proportion of children infected with COVID-19 has increased, and the Kern County Public Health Services Department has noted a significant uptick in childhood cases beginning in April. At the beginning of the year, children 18 and under made up 13.9 percent of all COVID-19 cases, whereas at the end of July, they were 18.8 percent of cases.

“We are always concerned that when we see an increase in COVID-19 cases that an increase in hospitalizations will follow,” Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson wrote in an email to The Californian. “As we see cases in children rising, we remain concerned on how that will impact this age group.”

Most children have mild symptoms, she continued, but some can get severely sick and require hospitalization, and even a ventilator, to help them breathe.

Additionally, the Health Department reports 20 local children have been diagnosed with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, a medical condition caused by COVID-19 that causes parts of the body to become inflamed.

In an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus in classrooms, state officials have required students to wear masks. The Health Department also encourages children not to share food and drinks and for family members who can get vaccinated to do so.

“Parents, just be smart, get vaccinated,” Kothary said.

People with COVID-19 display a wide variety of symptoms, making it difficult to determine when a child might be sick with the virus or another infectious disease. At a time like this, Kothary urged parents to not dismiss even mild symptoms.

“Your kid comes home with something funny,” he said, “just be cautious.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.