Cases of COVID-19 among kids are up in Southwest Florida but some doctors aren't seeing it

Liz Freeman Frank Gluck
Fort Myers News-Press

State data shows more young people in Southwest Florida are getting infected with COVID-19 compared to six months ago, even though hospitals and some physician practices say they are not seeing spikes in cases.

What medical professionals are doing is urging parents to get their kids aged 12 and older vaccinated as summer arrives and they go to camp and on family vacations. 

Golisano Children’s Hospital, part of Lee Health that is the main hospital provider in Lee County, launched a mobile vaccination clinic for children 12 and older on May 25.

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Lee Health  R.N. Courtney Cherco gives Marco Tapia,13, a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile vaccination clinic at Family Health Centers in Lehigh Acres on Thursday May, 27, 2021.  Golisano Children's Hospital  launched the mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic for kids.

The Pfizer vaccine was approved May 10 for kids 12 to 15 and was already allowed for teens 16 and older.

Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and chief executive officer of Lee Health, said the vaccine is proven safe and effective for children and he encourages it.

“Children who receive their first dose today will be fully vaccinated by Independence Day and can fully enjoy family vacations, summer camp and be ready to safely go back to school in the fall,” he said in a statement.

Experts recognize some parents are hesitant to get their kids vaccinated and that will delay reaching herd immunity, where 70% of the population is immune and necessary to put the pandemic behind us, said Dr. Salvatore Anzalone, a pediatrician with Healthcare Network in Collier County, a nonprofit medical provider.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found 32% of parents in April said they will wait to see how the vaccine works before getting their child vaccinated, and 19% said they definitely would not get their child vaccinated. 

Recent state data for pediatric infection includes a period before the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15- year-olds became available May 10.

 Lee Health  R.N. Courtney Cherco gives Marco Tapia,13, a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile vaccination clinic at Family Health Centers in Lehigh Acres on Thursday May, 27, 2021.  Golisano Children's Hospital  launched the mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic for kids.

For the four-week period from April 24 to May 23, Florida added 18,492 cases of COVID-19 among people under 18.

That’s a 6% increase compared to six months ago when the state saw 17,431 new cases in this age group from Oct. 25 to Nov. 22, the data shows.

Lee County saw 955 new cases among young people this past month, a 129% increase compared to 416 cases during the four-week period last fall.

Collier has seen 375 new cases among people 18 and younger his past month, up 81% from 207 cases from last fall.

The state data reflects a national trend. In late April, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported a 4% increase of cases in children in states that report pediatric cases.

When the Pfizer vaccine was approved for young teens, the pediatric academy immediately urged parents to take them to get inoculated.

“Vaccinating children will protect them and allow them to fully engage in all of the activities, in school, sports, socializing with friends and family, that are so important to their health and development," Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the pediatrics academy, said in a statement.

In Palm Beach County, the public health director, Dr. Alina Alonso, told county leaders last week there had been a 15% increase of cases among kids aged 5 to 14 in the county. It is an age group that is mostly too young to get vaccinated.

Overall Palm Beach added 1,055 new cases among people 18 and under from April 25 May 23, the data shows.

Alonso advised Palm Beach leaders a spike of cases among kids could occur after the Memorial Day holiday and into summer.

What pediatricians are saying

Healthcare Network, which serves 60% of the kids in Collier, is seeing declines in its virus positivity rate among kids who are tested.

“It is much less than it was. It’s really amazing to me,” Anzalone said.

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The positivity rate last year was around 15% of kids tested and now it’s around 5%, he said. He didn’t have case numbers.

The decline has been gradual and appears to coincide in March and April when parents were able to get themselves vaccinated, he said.

His theory is vaccinated parents are reducing their risk of infecting their kids, and now parents are taking their kids to get vaccinated.

Parents want their kids to go to summer camps, enjoy sports leagues and training programs and go on family vacations after last year’s lock downs, Anzalone said.

“I was surprised by how many parents wanted the vaccines for their kids,” he said. “They are tired of (the pandemic). They want to get back to normal. That is what I am hearing.”

Parents are using CVS for the shots for the kids, which has the Pfizer vaccine, he said.

Healthcare Network carries the Moderna vaccine which has not been approved for children although Moderna this week said its vaccine is safe and highly effective for children ages 12 to 17.

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The company plans to submit its findings for children to the Food and Drug Administration in early June.

Anzalone couldn’t say if Healthcare Network will pursue getting the Pfizer vaccine which requires deep-freezer storage or wait and see if the Moderna vaccine is approved for young people.

“We will do whatever it takes to serve our community,” he said.

At Physicians Primary Care in Lee County, the practice saw a spike in April of kids with the virus after the numbers went down in February and March, said Dr. David Butler, a pediatrician with the practice.

“Was it spring break? That would be my guess,” he said.

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Physicians Primary doesn’t have the Pfizer vaccine because of the storage requirement; parents are using CVS to get their kids inoculated.

“(CVS) has been faxing us reports (of the kids vaccinated),” he said. “I haven’t been overwhelmed with reports.”

Most of the kids getting the shots have other underlying conditions, like asthma, and he hasn’t seen a lot of  healthy kids getting the shots, he said.

That’s the difficult part, and parents ask him if he would get his kids vaccinated. He tells them ‘yes’ and one of his children is getting it this week, he said.

Parents want their teens active this summer after being isolated last year and that’s motivation for the vaccine.

“They want their kids to go out and do sports and be able to socialize,” he said.

What’s going on at the hospitals

Hospitals in the region are not seeing any change in admissions among kids hospitalized with the virus.

Golisano typically has one pediatric patient at any given time with the virus and that has not changed in recent weeks, according to spokesman Jonathon Little.

There has not been a significant increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations among kids in recent weeks or months, he said. Since the pandemic began, Golisano has treated 400 pediatric patients with the virus.

The children’s hospital serves children in the five-county region of Southwest Florida.

The NCH Healthcare System, the dominant hospital system in Collier, isn’t seeing any change in the number of kids hospitalized.

“At this time, there has been no spike in COVID hospitalizations in kids at NCH hospitals,” said Rebekah Gammon, administrative director of inpatient services at North Naples Hospital, where pediatric patients are admitted. “The numbers are remaining consistent.”

Since the pandemic began last March, 42 children, from newborns to age 17, have been treated at North Naples.

NCH is offering Pfizer vaccine to children 12 and older, and anyone in the community, through appointments at NCH’s Eagleview Building, 2450 Goodlett Frank Road, Suite 201.  

Visit the link COVID-19 Vaccine Appointments to sign up. Anyone 12 to 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian for the shot.

Golisano’s mobile vaccine clinic for kids aims to reach families who may have hardships with transportation. A parent or guardian must accompany their children to get the shot. It is walk-up only.

“We want to make sure that everyone who wants to be vaccinated has the ability to do so. That’s why we’re taking our COVID-19 vaccination clinic to them,” Alyssa Bostwick, chief nurse executive and vice president of operations at Golisano, said in a news release.  “Our goal is to vaccinate as many children as would like to be vaccinated before the next school year starts.”

The mobile clinic is tailored for kids and a special pain erase spray is available to help alleviate discomfort or fear kids may have.

The mobile clinic is partnering with the Lee County School District to bring the unit to middle and high schools to vaccinate during dismissal and parent pick-up times. Days and weeks will be announced at www.leehealth.org.

Dan DeLuca contributed to this report.

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