Study: California Overcounted Kids’ COVID Hospitalizations by 40%

Study: California Overcounted Kids' COVID Hospitalizations by 40% little girl stands next to her mom wearing mask A woman and child at St. Patrick's Catholic Church on April 9, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By Eric Mack | Wednesday, 19 May 2021 01:37 PM

A new study by a pediatrics medical journal offers a stunning rebuke of COVID-19 misinformation — if not disinformation — passed from California hospitals with respect to child hospitalizations from the disease.

In fact, California overcounted child hospitalizations by at least 40%, therefore distorting national numbers on the effect of the disease on children from "already extremely low relative to adults" to "making the actual rates vanishingly small," New York magazine's Intelligencer reported from two studies published in the journal Hospital Pediatrics.

"Taken together, these studies underscore the importance of clearly distinguishing between children hospitalized with SARS-CoV-2 found on universal testing versus those hospitalized for COVID-19 disease," Amy Beck and Dr. Monica Gandhi reported in a study titled, "Adjudicating Reasons for Hospitalization Shows That Severe Illness From COVID-19 in Children Is Rare."

"Both demonstrate that reported hospitalization rates greatly overestimate the true burden of COVID-19 disease in children."

The news is noteworthy because the misinformation might have been used to justify the shuttering of schools and shielding of children for longer than was necessary, if not to harmful effects for our nation's youth, the researchers concluded.

"Children have suffered tremendously due to policies that have kept schools and recreational facilities closed to them, and the burden has been greatest on children who are low-income and English-language learners," Beck and Gandhi wrote.

The overreaction based on flawed, if not misleading, data altered the lives and well-being of children, having the opposite-than-intended effect, they wrote.

"While some parents may be keeping children at home due to logistical challenges with hybrid models or a lack of after-care options, others are doing so out of fear that their children will be infected and fall seriously ill," the researchers wrote. "This is concerning given the tremendous health risks that children and families face as a result of not attending in-person school, including worsening mental health for children and parents, lack of therapy and appropriate support for children with specialized learning needs, increased risk for obesity, and lower academic achievement, leading to long-term detrimental impacts on quality of life and longevity."

Instead of following the science, it might have been distorting the science, the researchers suggested.

"Particularly, as we are now in a phase where all adults have access to COVID-19 vaccines but children under the age of 12 do not, it is critical that the risks of COVID-19 to children be portrayed accurately and also contextualized in comparison to other common respiratory illnesses (i.e. influenza and RSV)," they concluded.

Gandhi is an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, and Amy Beck is an associate professor of pediatrics. Their study homed in on the largest U.S. state.

"There is no reason to think these findings would be exclusive to California," Gandhi told Intelligencer. "This sort of retrospective chart review will likely reveal the same findings across the country."

One study found about 45% of 117 pediatric SARS-CoV2-positive patients hospitalized between May 10, 2020, and Feb. 10, 2021, "were unlikely to be caused by SARS-CoV-2."

Also, 39.3% of pediatric patients coded as SARS-CoV2-positive were asymptomatic.

The hospitalizations were more likely due to "surgeries, cancer treatment, a psychiatric episode, urologic issues, and various infections such as cellulitis, among other diagnoses" and not true effects of COVID-19, according to the report.

In the other study, 40% of 146 listed SARS-CoV-2 patients in the nation's fifth-largest children's hospital in the country had an "incidental" diagnosis and no documented COVID-19 symptoms before being hospitalized, according to the report.

Also, the study found 47% "potentially symptomatic" was defined as when "COVID-19 was not the primary reason for admission for these patients, and COVID-19 alone did not directly require hospitalization without the concomitant condition."

Findings by Stefan Baral, an infectious-diseases epidemiologist and physician at Johns Hopkins, noted in the British Medical Journal, "reinforce the importance of going through a meaningful process to understand the risks to children."

Also, according to Baral, the data filings were mistallied because the databases were administrative for billing and resource management.

"They were not designed to infer the prevalence and severity of an infectious virus," Baral added.