PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island health officials are closely monitoring a recent rise of infections among 10- to 14-year olds, as the unvaccinated age group has become more active and mobile over the past month.
A Target 12 analysis of R.I. Department of Health data shows the weekly rate of infections among the younger Rhode Islanders has grown faster than any other age group during a month when overall infections have mostly plateaued. The trend has caught the attention of state health officials.
“We have seen a modest increase in cases among children over the last few weeks,” Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken told Target 12 Saturday. “While much smaller in magnitude than what we have seen at other points in the pandemic, it’s something we’re watching closely.”
For more than a month, Rhode Island has seen a relatively consistent number of daily infections, following a steep decline after the state’s second wave around the New Year when weekly rates were high among most age groups.
Since then, the state has administered more than a half million doses of vaccines. More than two-thirds of the doses have gone into the arms of Rhode Islanders 55 years and older, coinciding with a declining and consistently lower rate of weekly infections among older age groups — bucking a trend seen during much of the pandemic when older adults had among the highest rates of weekly infections.
The 10- to 14-year-old age group, which isn’t eligible for vaccines, now has the third-highest rate of weekly infections totaling 257 cases per 100,000 people. The rate follows 15- to 18-year-olds (389 cases) and 19- to 24-year-olds (367 cases). But the weekly infections among the older age groups have been relatively stagnant and even declining slightly over the past month compared to the fast-rising infections among the younger age group.
Health officials are still examining the reasons behind the recent increase among the younger age groups, but Wendelken said children have become more active in recent weeks — making it easier for the virus to spread. As an example, he said the state has observed a rise in sports-related infections this month, which have totaled 85 so far compared to 65 during all of February.
“Schools continue to require regular testing of athletes, which may detect some asymptomatic cases,” Wendelken said. “Even beyond sports, we are all a little more active and mobile now. That means more people, and more young people, are in recreational venues and settings.”
Rhode Island isn’t alone. The federal government has not yet greenlit a COVID-19 vaccine for children, and national health experts have cited a recent concentration of cases among younger Americans in other states.
“More of the cases are occurring among younger people, with a heavy concentration in those 10-19,” former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb tweeted Sunday. He pointed to Massachusetts where cases have been highest among that age group during the past two weeks.
“Michigan data looks similar,” he added.
In addition to being more active recreationally, a growing number of students are also returning to in-person learning across the state. President Joe Biden and Gov. Dan McKee have made it a priority to get children back into classrooms, which included a targeted push to get teachers and other school staff vaccinated quicker than most other professions.
A Target 12 analysis of weekly infection data broken down by learning type shows new cases among in-person students more than doubled to at least 265 during the week ended March 20 compared to at least 110 during the week ended Feb. 20. By comparison, cases among virtual students increased just 33% to at least 100 during that same time period.
Despite the disparate trends, Wendelken claimed the rates of infections remain relatively similar between the two learning groups. But he did not immediately provide the number of students currently learning in each group, making it impossible to independently calculate the rates. Target 12 has requested that information.
“It is not clear that in-person learning is behind the increase because we’re seeing relatively comparable case rates between students doing in-person and not,” Wendelken said.
As part of its overall response effort, Rhode Island is scrambling to vaccinate as many people as possible with the limited amount of doses made available by the federal government. State leaders are hopeful supply will increase significantly in the coming weeks, which could help expedite vaccinations at a time when COVID-19 variants are spreading quickly across the country.
“We know its a race between vaccinations & variants,” tweeted Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of public health at Brown University. “Well, despite phenomenal vaccination rates, variants pulled ahead this week.”
He pointed to 34 states where infections increased, as positivity also increased in 38 states and hospitalizations grew in 20. Jha is optimistic that “we will win this race,” but vaccinations are a key part of the puzzle.
And one major challenge for Rhode Island — along with everywhere else — remains the absence of vaccines for the state’s youngest residents.
“We know that a more contagious strain of the virus has a foothold in Rhode Island,” Wendelken said. “This has likely slightly shifted the proportion of cases in the direction of populations not getting vaccinated, such as children.”