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'Hoping we can stop this surge before we fill our hospitals with children' | Younger people being hospitalized for COVID-19

Health officials say the delta variant is thought to be about as contagious as chickenpox.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. —

'We've never had as many children as this time' 

Children’s hospitals in North Carolina and South Carolina are being pushed to their capacity limits as COVID-19 and other viruses surge in both states.

“We’ve never had as many children as this time,” Dr. Caughman Taylor, the senior medical director at Prisma Health, said. “We had children holding in the emergency room who had to be there for 24 hours.”

Health officials from the largest hospital systems in both states said between respiratory infections like RSV, other illnesses, and COVID-19, they are quickly seeing a decrease in capacity at children’s hospitals.

Hospitals are preparing for an additional influx of patients in the coming weeks.

“Right now, our hospitals are very, very busy with children that have other viruses,” said Dr. Catherine Ohmstede, a pediatrician with Novant Health.

While Novant Health has yet to report a COVID-related surge in hospitals, pediatricians said they are seeing an increase in positive cases in their offices.

“This week, I’ve seen babies, toddlers, school-age children, and teenagers across the board come in with COVID diagnoses, COVID symptoms,” Ohmstede said.

RELATED: Experts describe Delta variant symptoms and importance of testing

'Hoping we can stop this surge before we fill our hospitals with children' 

According to Ohmstede, the COVID-19 delta variant is spreading more easily among children and causing more cases. She said it will be a couple of weeks before they are able to determine if it is causing a more serious illness.

Most children do not develop complications from COVID-19 until several weeks after they first develop symptoms, Ohmstede explained. This delay causes a delay in data. Ohmstede said hospital data tends to see increases a couple of weeks after the increase in new cases are first seen in pediatricians’ offices.

“All teams are really on deck and hoping we can stop this surge before we fill our hospitals with children with COVID as well as the other respiratory illnesses,” Ohmstede said.

A spokesperson for Atrium Health confirmed Thursday that Levine Children’s Hospital is reporting an uptick in pediatric COVID-19 patients. Exact data on the increase was not immediately available Thursday.

'The only people that can protect them are you '

Statewide, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports there are 1,651 patients of all ages fighting COVID-19 in hospitals. On Wednesday, that number increased by 115 patients, the highest single-day jump since Jan. 5.

“We truly hope we don’t see a repeat of what we saw earlier this year with the spike in adult cases happening in our youngest patients because of the delta variant,” a spokesperson for the Atrium Health hospital system wrote in a statement.

Like with adult hospitalizations, the majority of the hospitalizations with children are among those who have not yet been vaccinated.

“The only people that can protect them are you,” Taylor said. “We can’t, because by the time they get to us, it’s too late.”

The COVID-19 vaccines are not currently available to anyone 11 years of age or younger.

RELATED: Why aren't there COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 12?

When the Pizer COVID-19 vaccine was first made available to patients 12 years of age and older, Ohmstede and Dr. Charlene Wong, Chief Health Policy Officer for COVID-19 at North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, join WCNC Charlotte's Fred Shropshire for a virtual town hall answering your questions about vaccines for treens.

'We need to do what we can to protect each other'

“We need to get vaccinated," Dr. Charles Bregier, emergency medicine physician and medical director of corporate health for Novant Health said.  "We need to do what we can to protect each other and that includes new masking mandates endorsed."

RELATED: 'We are barrelling down that highway' | Mecklenburg County aiming to increase vaccination rate as cases surge

Bregier said the delta variant is thought to be about as contagious as chickenpox.

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"The delta variant is spreading dramatically,” Bregier said. “Infection rates are way up. Hospitalization rates are way up." 

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The latest data from Mecklenburg County shows hospitalizations trending upward, leading to concerns expressed by the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners at Wednesday night’s meeting

"If we stay on track like that, it is going to be a red-hot-minute, and we're going to be at the top of level of where we were at our very worst last winter,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Leigh Altman said. “We are barreling down that highway."

As previously noted by Bregier, the average age of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 was 61. Now that a significant portion of higher-risk population groups has been vaccinated, the age for hospitalized patients with COVID-19 has dropped to 45. 

RELATED: Doctors say they're seeing more patients in their 20s, 30s in the ICU

Mecklenburg County Public Health Director Gibbie Harris said hospital systems in the Charlotte area report that about 99% of their patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

"We really don't want to get to the point where we don't have enough beds to take care of the sickest people,” Bregier said. 

Tanya Mendis: Contact Tanya Mendis at tmendis@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Contact Kendall Morris at kmorris2@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.