NASHVILLE — COVID-19 is driving both physical and mental health crises among kids, according to the leader of Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.
A surge of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent weeks further strained a staff already operating at or near capacity for the last six months, said president Dr. Meg Rush. But she also noted another alarming trend: Kids facing behavioral and mental health crises.
She called it a "parallel epidemic" to COVID-19 during a congressional hearing Wednesday.
"Children and families across the country face substantial disruptions to their daily lives due to COVID-19," Rush said. "I have consistently had equally, if not more, numbers of children admitted to my hospital in the last six weeks with a behavioral health primary diagnosis as I have (for) COVID."
The number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among children increased sharply over the summer and as school began nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Tennessee, COVID-19 pediatric cases and hospitalizations also reached record highs. Hospitalizations have dropped in recent weeks but remain heightened statewide.
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Rush shared about her experience during a congressional hearing in Washington . The hearing, entitled "Putting Kids First: Addressing COVID-19's Impacts on Children," was hosted by the Committee on Energy and Commerce staff.
The committee, speakers and dozens of representatives discussed the negative mental health effects of the pandemic on kids at length during the two-and-a-half-hour hearing. Much of the discussion hinged on how virtual learning, quarantines and isolation can disrupt the education and socialization of kids.
The hearing also included discussions on long-term health effects of COVID-19 in children, which can include inflammation of the heart and other organs, fatigue, headache, insomnia, dizziness and difficulty concentrating.
Rush also spoke to vaccine hesitancy in Tennessee and across the south as vaccination rates lag. As of Tuesday, 44% of Tennesseans were fully vaccinated, according to state data. Nationwide, roughly 55% are fully vaccinated, per CDC data.
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"Our lower rates of vaccination are clearly correlated with the fact that Tennessee intermittently ranked No. 1 for the highest number of COVID-positive cases in both adults and children — as recently as Monday of this week — which in turn resulted in a high number of hospitalizations."
Rush and the other speakers repeatedly pointed to vaccination as the safest and most efficient way to bring the pandemic under control.
Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved under an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for children 12 and older. Pfizer-BioNTech said this week an internal study showed its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11 at one-third the dose used in adolescents and adults. The FDA and the CDC will need to sign off on the vaccine before it becomes available to more children, but government officials have promised to quickly review the data.
Along with Rush, speakers included American Academy of Pediatrics President Dr. Lee Savio Beers; American Psychological Association CEO Arthur Evans; VaxTeen founder and high school senior Kelly Danielpour; and epidemiologist and public health expert Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg.
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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Vanderbilt doctor says COVID is driving mental health crises in kids