The Tennessee Department of Health projects the state’s children’s hospitals are on pace to be completely full by the end of next week.
“All of them,” Tennessee’s health commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said ahead of a conference luncheon.
Piercey said the delta variant is rapidly spreading among children, who are quickly showing symptoms after possible exposure, possibly amounting to a much faster incubation time than previous versions of the virus.
Children and teenagers across the state are increasingly being hospitalized after contracting the virus in the last couple weeks.
“Never in my career have I seen hospitals full in the summer,” Piercey said, noting the recent increase in hospitalizations and ICU stays for younger adults.
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Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is also putting more children than usual in hospitals right now.
Children age 10 and below now account for more than 10% of all new coronavirus infections in the state, one of the highest rates of any point during the pandemic, according to Tennessee virus data released by the state earlier this week.
The share of infections in this age group hovered between 4% and 7% for most of last year. But the percentage has crept up this year as many older Tennesseans were vaccinated, causing the virus to find new hosts among younger, unvaccinated populations — including children.
So far, only children ages 12 and older are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
While Piercey fears these rising infections will fill up children’s hospitals, state virus data makes it clear this hasn’t happened yet.
That data, available from the state through Tuesday, shows only five people under the age of 10 and 17 people under the age of 20 have been hospitalized by the virus in the past 30 days. The state reported higher levels of hospitalizations for both age groups throughout much of last year.
Sarah Tanksley, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Health, said Thursday afternoon there were currently 23 patients hospitalized in pediatric beds with the virus across the state. While this number may seem small, Tanksley described it as part of an unusual rise in hospital patients.
“Hospitals are seeing a rise in pediatric cases as well as respiratory illness we don’t normally see this time of year,” she said.
Tanksley added the health department is updating its online virus data to include new information on pediatric patients.
Alan Levine, CEO of Ballad Health hospitals in northeast Tennessee, replied on Twitter to news of Piercey’s projection to affirm that conditions are expected to become critical for some children.
“And children have already died, and others are on ventilators, and ALL OF IT is preventable,” Levine said.
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Piercey’s caution about the potential for children to become sick upon returning to classrooms comes as one of Tennessee’s top Republican leaders, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, threatened school officials with legislative action if they implement mask mandates or return to virtual learning.
“I sure hope that school systems do not require a mask mandate for those students,” Sexton said during a news conference Monday. “And if they do, I’m going to ask the governor for a special session. If they close the schools, I’m going to ask the governor for a special session.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, speaker of the Senate, said the decision about mask requirements in school should be left to local education boards.
The debate has intensified across Tennessee on whether to require students and staff to wear masks when they return to the classroom this school year.
Follow Reach Natalie Allison on Twitter at @natalie_allison.