Arkansas children's hospitals report record high number of children hospitalized with Covid-19

Dr. Rick Barr, chief clinical officer at Arkansas Children's Hospital, said he's seen a sharp rise in children hospitalized with Covid-19 recently.

By Martin Savidge, Jason Morris and Eric Levenson, CNN

(CNN) -- Arkansas children's hospitals report a record number of children are hospitalized with Covid-19 as the illness continues to prey upon the state's unvaccinated population.

The hospitals, located in Little Rock and Springdale, said 24 pediatric patients were hospitalized with Covid-19 on Wednesday, a 50% increase over any previous peak during the pandemic. Of the 24 children, seven are in intensive care and two are on ventilators, the hospital said. More than half of them could have been vaccinated -- anyone 12 and over is eligible for a free shot -- but none of those hospitalized had done so.

"We're seeing a real surge with the Delta variant that we did not see previously," Dr. Rick Barr, chief clinical officer at Arkansas Children's Hospital, told CNN. "This is the worst that we've seen it for kids, absolutely."

In general, children have less severe illness from Covid-19, but they are not immune to the virus and can occasionally have serious issues. Barr said child hospitalizations have become more common recently -- and parents are taken aback when they see the level of care their children need.

"They're shocked because the messaging out there has been that kids don't really get sick with Covid, and we didn't see serious illnesses, except for rare instances, with the previous variants," he said. "So parents are both shocked and now they understand the value of vaccines. In fact, they're encouraging other parents to get their kids vaccinated."

The rise in childhood hospitalizations in Arkansas comes amid a sharp rise in total Covid-19 hospitalizations in the state, which have surged from about 200 patients on June 12 to 946 patients as of Monday, according to data from Health and Human Services. Hospitalizations from Covid-19 are still below the peaks of January and last July, however.

The surge in cases shows few signs of slowing, too. Arkansas also has the third-highest number of cases per capita over the last seven days, according to CDC data.

Arkansas has the third-lowest vaccination rate of any state, with about 41% of residents fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in a positive sign, the seven-day average of vaccine doses administered has nearly doubled in the past two weeks amid a renewed focus on their importance.

Barr told CNN that when a child comes into the hospital with Covid-19, he asks the parents whether they have been vaccinated.

"We find that often they are not vaccinated," he said. "We've seen multiple instances where they now wish they'd gotten their child vaccinated."

Nurse's struggle to get her mother vaccinated

The vast majority of Covid-19 deaths, though, remain among unvaccinated older people -- a fact that Rachel Rosser knows all too well.

Rosser is a nurse and the clinical operations manager at Arkansas Children's Northwest Hospital in Springdale, in the northwest part of the state. But her medical expertise wasn't enough to convince her 63-year-old mother, Kim Maginn, a teacher and grandmother, to get the shot.

"She was not vaccinated. She told me she thought that if she was going to get it, she would have already gotten it," Rosser told CNN.

"I said, 'Maybe you've just been lucky so far. You're in really great shape, but you're not Superwoman. You're not Wonder Woman. You could still get it.' And I said, 'You're in great shape, but you're still 63,' and I gave her medical facts. I pleaded on an emotional side, 'What would we do without you? Can you imagine what our lives would be like without you?' "

The pleas didn't work. And in June, her mother became infected with Covid-19, and then came the fever and starkly low blood-oxygen levels, which led her to the ICU and then the ventilator. Rosser knew what would happen next.

"I had sat with so many other patients when their families couldn't be with them or didn't feel strong enough to be with them and held their loved one's hands, and I couldn't not do that for my mom," she said.

Maginn died of Covid-19 on July 6. Rosser said she wishes she pushed more for the vaccine.

"I'm angry that she didn't get vaccinated. And I personally feel guilty that I didn't try harder," she said.

Her father was also unvaccinated -- and that's where Rosser finally drew the line.

"I broke down on his front porch one day after going to visit my mom in the ICU and I just told him, I said, 'I am not doing this again. You need to get vaccinated. I'm not doing this again. I'm not going through this again,'" she said.

"And he did. He went the next day and got his first shot."

He got his second dose this past Friday.

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