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Omicron is a bigger risk for the young, medical data shows

A volunteer dressed in a costume talked to a young boy who is about to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at vaccination center in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. On Wednesday Jan. 19, 2022, the new Czech government dismissed the previous government's plan to order a vaccine mandate for the elderly people and for some professional groups.Petr David Josek/Associated Press

The Omicron variant may be more dangerous for children than earlier coronavirus strains, a study of hospitalization data from one of South Africa’s biggest medical insurance programs showed.

Data from the 56,164 COVID-19-related hospital admissions among the more than 2 million beneficiaries of the Government Employees Medical Scheme found that the admission rate for children under the age of four was 49 percent higher during the Omicron wave than for Delta. It was also higher than during the infection surges driven by the original virus and the beta variant, according to the data analyzed by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

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In addition, admissions were 25 percent higher for those aged 4 to 18 than in the Delta wave, although lower than for beta, it showed.

The trend among children contrasts with the data for adults where the Omicron wave caused the lowest admission rate of any of the four variants that have led to major infection surges in South Africa.

“Persons under the age of 18 are responsible for an increasingly large proportion of identified COVID-19 infections and are associated with an increasingly high case-admission rate,” the NICD said in its report on Wednesday. “This may possibly suggest that the young are being more commonly impacted by Omicron in contrast to the adult population.”

Still, the results may be skewed by the fact that until early November children between 12 and 17 couldn’t get COVID-19 vaccines in South Africa and those below 12 aren’t eligible for the shots, the NICD said. Older age groups in the country are proportionally more vaccinated than younger adults.

The study also found:

  • The average age of those testing positive for COVID-19 during the Omicron wave was 38.5, compared with 40.8 during the Delta surge, 45.6 during the beta wave and 43 in the original surge.
  • Over all age groups, only 15.4 percent of those infected during the Omicron wave went to the hospital. The corresponding numbers were 19.3 percent for Delta, 28.4 percent for beta and 21.4 percent for the original virus.