COVID-19 cases among children surge in Georgia

Most children experience very mild illness or even no symptoms
Jy'Merius Glynn has been hospitalized at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta for several weeks. He is getting better.

Jy'Merius Glynn has been hospitalized at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta for several weeks. He is getting better. Contributed

At the hospital, Jy’Merius Glynn seemed confused, unable to recognize his mother at times.

As the staff worked frantically to get down his raging fever of 105 degrees, Tieeisha Hunt relayed details about how her son had complained of a stomach ache days before, but seemed fine. The 17-year-old had watched TV, played video games and didn’t act in any way that raised alarm.

Then he collapsed on his bedroom floor.

Because her son has epilepsy, Hunt’s first thoughts as she called 911 was that the neurological disorder was the cause. She would soon find out, though, that he had an undetected case of COVID-19.

The number of Georgians under the age of 18 diagnosed with COVID-19 has jumped 65% in the past month, with more than 21,000 testing positive since March.

And, as more children are diagnosed with the illness, doctors are encountering more with complications than they have so far in the 6-month-old pandemic, experts say.

Jy’Merius Glynn at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. He was severely ill with COVID-19 but is doing much better. 

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After emergency room doctors in Rome, Georgia, stabilized Hunt’s son on June 30, the teenager was transferred to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. In the intensive care unit, he was placed on a ventilator and underwent dialysis.

“They were the worst 15 days of my life,” said Hunt. It’s unclear if her son’s epilepsy played a role in him becoming so ill.

Such dire pediatric cases have been extremely rare. Most children who get COVID-19 don’t get critically ill with the disease. Many don’t experience any symptoms at all.

But “what has happened is there is strength in numbers,” said Dr. Mark Cameron, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. “And I say that in the most sadly ironic ways. What might have been rare and uncommon a couple months ago is now a clear and present danger.”

Children were largely cocooned at home during the early months of the pandemic, but now are going to schools, football fields and swimming pools. And it’s becoming clear that children can catch and spread the virus more than previously thought, according to experts.

Research suggests as many as 45% of children who get infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children’s symptoms tend to be mild and cold-like. Healthy children are more likely to experience serious complications from the flu than COVID-19, according to the CDC.

In Georgia, children have represented only about 1.2% of total hospitalizations.

Four children in Georgia have died from complications related to COVID-19: a 7-year old Savannah boy who had a fever-fueled seizure while in the bathtub and drowned; a 15-year-old boy from Gwinnett County with underlying conditions; a 14-year-old Habersham County girl who suffered from a chronic condition; and a 17-year-old boy from Fulton County who suffered from a chronic condition.

Children with underlying medical conditions — including diabetes, chronic lung disease, sickle cell anemia and obesity — are at a higher risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

In May, doctors started seeing a new and extremely rare complication of the coronavirus infection in children called MIS-C, which stands for Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. It manifests roughly two to four weeks after a coronavirus infection. Experts suspect that children who develop this syndrome were exposed to the virus and that their bodies mounted an exaggerated immune response.

Symptoms are similar to toxic shock and Kawasaki disease: fever, rashes, swollen glands and, in severe cases, heart inflammation.

So far, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has treated about 30 children with the illness.

Dr. Andi Shane, system medical director of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said all the children “have recovered or are recovering.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has seen about 700 patients with the coronavirus, and about a third of them have been hospitalized.

Dr. Stephen Thacker, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Savannah’s Memorial Health University Medical Center, said the number of children hospitalized there with COVID-19 remains low, only about three at any given time.

He said most pediatric patients at the Savannah Hospital stay a few days to a week, and he has not yet had to intubate a child.

“Even though it’s an uncommon experience for children to end up sick enough to end up in the hospital, I would not want to give the impression that children are somehow immune from complications,” he said.

And, while children might weather COVID-19 just fine, it could be a different story for the adults they come into contact with, especially if they are older and medically vulnerable.

“Now that we are testing more children and mapping transmission, we can see children are getting infected and can transmit the virus quite readily,” said Case Western Reserve University’s Cameron.

Jy’Merius Glynn at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. He was severely ill with COVID-19 but is doing much better. 

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Three of Hunt’s other children tested positive for the disease, but never showed symptoms. Hunt, who works as a pharmacy technician, tested negative.

“In the beginning, I thought they were exaggerating the numbers,” she said. “I never thought it would hit us like it has.”

Hunt can’t wait until the day her son, who is expected to make a full recovery, is released from the hospital. He’s looking forward to school, even if classes are remote.

“He’ll be home,” she said, “exactly where he needs to be.”

AJC database specialist John Perry contributed to this article