Students and staffers wear masks on the first day of school in the Cleveland School District on Aug. 9, 2021. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Kayla Dowdle of Nesbit was looking forward to a rare beach getaway with friends. As the mother of four — including two-year-old twins — and a nurse, kid-free vacations were hard to come by.

But when her five-year-old started complaining of ear pain and showing signs of conjunctivitis, or pink eye, in the days before her trip, she had a feeling something was off. She took him to his pediatrician on July 20, and a nurse practitioner assessed him. He wasn’t coughing or feverish.

“The nurse practitioner came in and said it’s most likely something viral,” recalled Dowdle. “I asked if she would mind COVID testing him because I know conjunctivitis can be a symptom in children.”

The nurse practitioner pushed back and said she didn’t think a test was necessary. 

“She said ‘it would be highly unlikely’ if it were COVID. I said, ‘Just humor me and test him,’” said Dowdle.

Her son Maverick’s test came back positive, and the nurse practitioner was shocked. Dowdle said she told her Maverick was the clinic’s first positive test they had seen in a while. 

Within three days, all three of her other children were showing the same symptoms as her son. 

Pediatricians and infectious disease doctors in Mississippi have reached a conclusion: This is a different coronavirus than last year’s. 

And while they’re not sure whether the delta variant is more virulent, or causes more severe illness in children, they are sure of this: there is far, far more of it. A Mississippi Today analysis shows an 830% increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in children for the first two weeks of school in 2021 compared to the first two weeks this data was reported last August.

As for Dowdle, she and her husband did their best to keep everyone masked and separated in different rooms of the house.  

“It was very hard to keep them separated. On day one (two-year-old) Sutton found a cup of Maverick’s and drank out of it,” she remembered. Dowdle and her husband both managed to stay well, but the virus jumped quickly from child to child.

“It moved through our entire household in a matter of days,” she said.

Thankfully each of her children recovered after about two days of symptoms, but Dowdle was, and still is, on the lookout for another serious potential effect of the coronavirus: multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. The condition, which can lead to hospitalization and even death, commonly occurs four to six weeks after COVID-19 infection in children. 

Children’s of Mississippi saw its largest number of children hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 on Thursday, with 28 children requiring hospital care. Eight of those were in the intensive care unit. 

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted Thursday that cases among youth are "increasing rapidly.

The hospital is “seeing the consequences” of the reluctance to require masks in schools and the overall low vaccination rate of adults, said Dr. Charlotte Hobbs, professor of pediatric infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

READ MORE: Which Mississippi school districts are requiring masks?

“Right now we have intense community transmission of (COVID-19) with a large proportion of the vaccine-eligible population remaining unvaccinated,” she said.

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows children are making up an increasingly large share of the country’s total infections. Over 121,000 cases — what the group calls a “continuing substantial increase” — were added during the week ending Aug. 12, an over 400% jump from this time last month. Infections in children made up 18% of all COVID-19 cases reported during that same time frame.  

While the organization said it appears at this time severe illness due to coronavirus in children is uncommon, there is “an urgent need” to collect more data on long-term impacts of the pandemic in children — including their physical health. 

Hobbs said many children who are hospitalized with COVID at Children’s of Mississippi have underlying conditions such as obesity and diabetes, but they are also seeing previously healthy children in the hospital. The mother of a 13-year-old girl from Raleigh who died shortly after being diagnosed with COVID-19 told WLOX her daughter was a healthy child with no underlying conditions. 

And not only are more children getting sick with the hyper transmissible delta variant, there are fewer treatment options for them than for adults, Hobbs said.

Lacey Outlaw of Madison said she feels grateful and lucky her five-year-old had a mild case of coronavirus when she tested positive July 23. She had been complaining of a sore throat and had a fever the night before. 

Outlaw and her husband are both vaccinated, and they didn’t get sick. 

“I thought I had a scratchy throat one day, but it may have been me just psyching myself out. I was trying not to freak out, waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she said. 

(R-L) Anita Henderson, MD; Mary Anne Perez, MD; and Jonathan Shook, MD, at the Lamar County School Board meeting on Aug. 10. Credit: Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics

Because a vaccine for the 5 to 12-year-old age range has not yet been approved, the best thing Mississippians can do to protect children is to get vaccinated themselves, said Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician and the president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians.

“The more adults, the more teenagers that are vaccinated, the less likely someone is going to bring COVID back home to the child,” said Henderson. 

VIEW OUR COVID-19 DATA & RESOURCES


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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.