Omicron’s Impact on Youth’s Physical, Mental & Behavioral Health

January 18, 2022

By: Tom Shanley, MD, President & CEO

As we start the new year, we once again find ourselves in a trying phase of the pandemic. With the more contagious Omicron variant spreading rapidly across the country, we are witnessing the enormous toll it takes on our children’s health and wellbeing. 

Between January 6 – January 13, Lurie Children’s averaged nearly 100 newly diagnosed patients per day, up 1,500 percent from late November and 450 percent higher than our previous peak in December 2020. During this period of substantial COVID-19 community activity, hospitalizations were extraordinarily high. Case counts have dropped slightly from the first week of January, indicating that rates may be stabilizing. 

Since January 1, we have taken care of more than 110 children in the hospital with COVID-19, roughly 20 percent of whom required intensive care. Around 75 percent of these children were admitted for COVID-19 illness, as opposed to testing positive during an unrelated hospitalization. 

Most of our patients hospitalized for COVID-19 illness are unvaccinated, and 60 percent are under the age of 5 and therefore, too young to be eligible for vaccination. Consistent with other parts of the country, only 30 percent of kids ages 5-11 are vaccinated in Chicago. 

Our mental and behavioral health crisis is a pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic. At Lurie Children’s, we have seen increases in suicide attempts from 2-3 per month to 2-3 per day. We used to get 50 calls per week for new appointments and now get 50 calls a day. 

Illinois has far too few inpatient psychiatric beds for children and far too few residential facilities with pediatric capacity. Because of this, Lurie Children’s is boarding a significant number of youth with special needs who have lost their placement in the community and who can't be cared for at home and have nowhere to go. 

Lurie Children’s workforce, like healthcare workers across the globe, have been directly impacted by the pandemic and are experiencing significant burnout. This contributes to a lack of continuity of care for our patients and risks our ability to continue to achieve exceptionally high-quality outcomes for our patients.  

Despite this challenging start, it is important that we remain steadfast in using the tools we have at our disposal to turn a corner with this pandemic. Vaccines are the single most effective tool to help us achieve stability for our youth and their caregivers. Now, more than ever, it is vital that we continue to clearly address questions from parent and caregivers, provide them with reassurance about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, and continue to emphasize the crucial role vaccines play in ending the pandemic.