SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The first COVID-19 death of a child was reported by the South Dakota Department of Health (SDDOH) Wednesday. The child, who was under the age of one, had COVID-19, RSV, and Rhinovirus, according to Daniel Bucheli with the SDDOH.

As Omicron continues to spread through South Dakota, COVID-19 cases among school-age children are on the rise while the hospitalizations of children with the virus are higher than ever at local health systems.

Avera Health’s Chief Medical Innovation Officer, Dr. David Erickson says the reason for the rise in cases in children is not that omicron affects children more than previous variants, but that the rate of transmission is much higher.

“I think the fact that it’s so transmissible, that the transmission rate is probably four to five times higher than Delta, that you are going to see more pediatric cases,” Dr. Erickson said.

For young children, the rates of vaccination are much lower than other age groups. According to the Department of Health’s vaccine data, only 19% (16,250 children) in the 5-11 age range have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The rate of vaccination jumps to 41% (19,632 children) in the 12-15 age range and to 45% (10,006) in the 16-17 age range.

Dr. Erickson describes those under the age of 5 as an “at risk” population due to their inability to qualify for the COVID-19 vaccination.

Cases in the state have been reaching new daily highs just one week after students began returning to school following the holiday break.

In the last seven days data from the SDDOH shows an increase of 2,697 COVID-19 cases among children aged 0-19. In schools, the latest data from the Department of Health shows an increase of 528 active cases from last week. The majority of COVID-19 cases are among students.

Hospitalizations are also seeing an upward trend across South Dakota.

At Sanford Health more children are being admitted to the Sanford Children’s Hospital with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic, according to Vice President Dr. Joseph Segeleon.

Dr. Segeleon told KELOLAND News that the hospital is extremely full, with many of the hospitalizations being children with COVID-19, influenza, and RSV.

According to Sanford Health’s Chief Physician Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Sanford Health is completely full and they have opened four overflow beds. Cauwels told KELOLAND News on Wednesday that many of the children at the Children’s Hospital have COVID-19 with three children in the PICU.

“To be full in that unit, especially when many of those kids do have COVID, is a big deal and something we want to be very careful with,” Dr. Cauwels said.

Both Dr. Cauwels and Dr. Segeleon point to the fact that children under the age of five are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and are therefore at higher risk.

“Unfortunately, our young children, those under the age of 5, currently don’t have the protection of the COVID vaccine available to them,” Dr. Segeleon told KELOLAND News in a statement. “The best way we can protect those young children is to get vaccinated ourselves and boosted, when eligible.”

Dr. Jeremy Cauwels says it’s important for those eligible to receive the COVID-19 shot, especially if they can receive a booster.

“Keeping up with those vaccines right now is key,” Dr. Cauwels said.

Data on COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Avera Health system is not available but pediatrician Dr. David Basel with the health system says they have seen a small increase in pediatric hospitalizations. But Dr. Basel pointed out that hospitalizations for any age range often lag about one week behind surges in active cases, so they are not expecting to see a jump in numbers for at least another week.

Across South Dakota, schools are beginning to implement new COVID-19 measures to curb the spread of the virus in the school.

Thursday, the Irene-Wakonda School district announced it would move to Level I on their “Return to School” plan which will recommend masks for all students and staff beginning Tuesday, January 18. Tea Area schools and the Worthington, Minnesota school district will also implement a mask mandate.