‘Tough days ahead’: Experts worry about infected children as Omicron cases soar

Infectious disease specialists have warned that they were seeing an increase in the hospitalisation of young children as part of the current outbreak of coronavirus infections in the country. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

Infectious disease specialists warn about Omicron’s possible impact on children as they are seeing unprecedented admissions of toddlers.

Infectious disease specialists have warned that data indicate that children under five are being affected worse than before by the latest outbreak of coronavirus infections in South Africa.

More than 100 children under four had been admitted to hospital in the fourth week of the new resurgence.

The Omicron variant is currently dominant in Gauteng.

Dr Wasila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that whereas children were not heavily affected by Covid-19 previously, during the third wave they had seen an increase in paediatric admissions and now they are seeing a sharp rise in admissions for children under five. 

Data from Tshwane showed that most young children being admitted had parents who were not vaccinated. 

People over 60 accounted for the second-highest number of admissions.

“It is different from what we saw before,” Jassat said.

Infectious disease specialists warn they were seeing an increase in hospital admissions among young children as a fresh coronavirus outbreak grips the country. (Photo:

Dr Michelle Groome from the NICD said the seven-day moving average for positive cases nationally was 300, which increased to 1,000 and is now 4,814, with a rapid rise over the past two days and 11,535 cases recorded on Thursday.

“The slope of increase is unprecedented if compared to previous waves.”

She said that nationally the positivity rate was now 22%, with Gauteng’s numbers indicating that more than one in three tests are positive for coronavirus.

Groome added that while the virus first infected younger people it is now spreading to older people.

Currently they estimated that more than one infected person will transmit the virus to more than one person nationally and to more than two people in Gauteng.

“It is the highest we have ever seen.”

 Jassat added that they are seeing an increase in hospital admissions in Gauteng as well as small increases in some of the other provinces. An increase in the daily death rate had also been observed in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and North West.

Groome said it is still very early to say whether Omicron will cause severe disease since the high incidence of severe disease is usually seen later in the outbreak. 

“We are seeing the mild spectrum now. We can’t say anything about disease severity,” she added. Early evidence showed that this variant was more transmittable but also had a degree of “immune escape” that increased the risk of reinfection.

Nationally the positivity rate as of Friday morning was 22%, which translated into more than one in five tests being positive.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said they were warned eight days ago that the Omicron variant could be a driver of the rapid spread of new infections.

He said on Friday morning that the number of new daily cases jumped from 2,465 last week to 11,535 on Thursday afternoon.

“The curve is very steep. It is more steep than any other we have seen in the previous three waves.”

Phaahla added that he hopes the mild disease seen currently will be a feature of the Omicron variant and will continue.

He said they were seeing an increase in cases in most provinces, especially those close to Gauteng, while only the Free State and the Northern Cape have relatively low numbers.

“The indications are that the variant is highly transmissible but could cause only mild illness, especially for those who are vaccinated,” the minister said.

There had been an increase in hospital admissions, especially in people younger than 40, but in Gauteng, where up to 80% of new cases had been recorded, hospitals had not yet reached capacity.

“The evidence is that vaccines are still the best protection against serious illness.”

Phaahla added: “Tough days lay ahead of us.”

While he refused to speculate on further lockdown measures to be implemented by the Coronavirus Command Council, he did say they will meet in the coming week to take a decision on additional restrictions.

Dr Ntsakisi Maluleke from the Gauteng health department said the province is investigating why they are seeing an increase in cases in pregnant women and young children. 

Dr Ramphelane Morewane from the national department said that given early indications they are “paying attention” to paediatric beds.

Data from the paediatric wards in Tshwane show that of all the children admitted only three parents are vaccinated. (Photo: Gallo Images/Ashley Vlotman)

Jassat said some of the paediatric admissions were for short stays, to bring down a fever or to give a child fluids. 

Deputy director-general of the national Department of Health, Dr Nicholas Crisp, said they have not yet received an application to approve vaccines for children younger than 12 but they have received an indication that Pfizer will do so early next year.

Jassat added that more patients are admitted to hospital while beds are available, which probably explains the paediatric admissions. 

However, it was possible that there was something different about this variant that made children more susceptible because they were not vaccinated. 

She cited data from the paediatric wards in Tshwane which show that of all the children admitted only three parents are vaccinated. DM/MC


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