SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one small measure of solace in the minds of many is that children, among the most vulnerable members of our society, have been in large part spared the worst effects of the virus. That may no longer be the case.

This is thanks to the most recent variant; Omicron.

During the week of Dec. 21-27, an average of 334 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 58 percent increase from the week before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Omicron — it just spreads so fast that we’re going to see a lot more kids get infected,” said Dr. David Basel, pediatrician and Vice President of Clinical Quality for Avera Health.

The reason Omicron spreads so much more efficiently is due to the structure of its spike protein; the tool it uses to get into our cells.

The way Omicron works is those spike proteins attach to a certain receptor on the cell, and that opens it up to allow [the virus] to get into the cell. Omicron has multiple mutations on that spike protein that allow it to bind to that cell a lot more effectively, and get into that cell more quickly.

Dr. David Basel

This increased efficiency is why Basel says that vaccination and boosters are important. “You’ve got to have more antibodies to cover all of those spike proteins so that it can attach to the cell,” he said.

Basel says that at this moment, there isn’t a consensus on how many children will be infected. With this being the case, he recommends vaccinations and boosters for those who can receive them, and mask wearing for any who can not be vaccinated.

“It really becomes a numbers issue,” said Dr. Joe Segeleon, Vice President and Medical Officer of Sanford Children’s Hospital, describing the way that Omicron is likely to affect children.

“Omicron is a highly contagious respiratory virus,” continued Segeleon. “As we see large numbers of infections in general, we are going to see larger numbers of children going to be infected as well.”

Segeleon says this is because many of these children, those aged 5-years and younger, cannot yet be vaccinated.

“Because we’re going to see more infections and more cases of Omicron — we are going to see more hospitalizations in pediatrics,” said Segeleon. “It’s just a matter of sheer numbers.”

According to Segeleon, the increase in the number of children being infected also means that more children who are in at-risk categories, such as those under one-year-old and those with health conditions, will be infected.

The virus, in general, is going to seek out the unvaccinated.

Dr. joe segeleon

Due to this, Segeleon says that while it remains true that children as a whole are less at risk from Omicron (as with previous variants of COVID-19) than the general public, the number of pediatric hospitalizations is rising due to the sheer number of children now being infected.

“The one caveat to that,” said Segeleon “is that the condition called MISC — multi-system inflammatory syndrome of children — and also long-haul COVID; both of those entities can occur in children who actually didn’t have that difficult of a time in the acute illness, and may not even have been hospitalized.”

A main factor in the idea that children will be hit hard by Omicron is the reality that children aged five and under can not yet be vaccinated.

“The virus, in general, is going to seek out the unvaccinated,” said Segeleon. “We have a large segment in pediatrics, those less than age five, who are not eligible for the vaccine. They may be more vulnerable to cases [of Omicron], and a proportion of those children may end up hospitalized or more severely ill.”

This idea is backed up by data, according to Segeleon. “If you look nationally at pediatric data, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a very high-degree number of the children that have been hospitalized during this current wave are children that are unvaccinated,” he said.

In order to protect the children, especially those unable to be vaccinated, Segeleon stressed the need for vaccination.

“I think that the most effective and the most important steps that family members of children that are five and under can do is they themselves, the family members, can be vaccinated,” said Segeleon. If you surround the child with vaccinated individuals, it is less likely that the child is going to get the infection.”