'With omicron, it's different': How parents can detect and deflect the variant in kids

Children and teenagers are bearing the brunt of new COVID-19 cases in Illinois, representing about 26% of recent infections in a week, state data shows.

From Jan. 3 to Monday, there were 221,527 new COVID-19 infections, and residents 19 years old and younger constituted 58,521 of those, the highest count in all age groups. For comparison, cases in the 20 to 29 demographic came to 39,051, or 17.6% of the total, according to Illinois Department of Public Health records.

The state's oldest residents, ages 80 and up, represented 5,109 or 2.3% of new cases in that time period.

It's a reason for parents to rethink their pandemic playbook as the highly infectious omicron COVID-19 strain dominates across the U.S., experts advised.

"There's no question - with omicron, it's different," said Dr. Michael Bauer, medical director at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

Typically, omicron presents as a mild version of the virus.

"Anybody that has cold-like symptoms at this point should really presume they have COVID-19 till they can prove it's not," said Bauer, a pediatrician. "Those symptoms include congestion, sore throat, headache, a fever, feeling punky."

So far, "what we're not seeing are those numbers of people that are losing smell and taste," compared with previous COVID-19 variants such as the delta strain.

Other omicron trends include "more upper-respiratory symptoms - not nearly the same degree of lower-respiratory (symptoms) hitting your lungs, which is a good thing," Bauer said. "But that's why it does affect children who have smaller airways a bit more," just as with croup.

With the current surge in cases, indoor social events including kids sitting together and eating pose risks for spreading COVID-19.

"I think that's where a lot of people right now are having their downfall - getting together and eating in small rooms," Bauer said. "This is really contagious."

"You want to keep those indoor gatherings to those that are vaccinated, protected and wearing masks."

The rate of increase in new COVID-19 cases in the state was also highest in the 19-and-younger age group, with a jump of nearly 13% over the previous week, in contrast to 7% to 10% for the rest of the population.

Like adults, the majority of children in hospitals with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, Bauer said.

Under federal guidelines, vaccinations are not yet approved for children 4 and younger; those 11 and younger are not eligible for booster shots yet.

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