As the school year gets underway across the United States, new data shows that coronavirus cases among children are climbing.
Since the pandemic began, children have represented 14.8% of total cases, but for the week ending Aug. 26, that percentage jumped to 22.4%, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
While child COVID-19 cases declined in early summer, they have "increased exponentially" recently, with more than a five-fold increase in the past month, according to the academy. Child cases went from about 38,000 the week ending July 22 to more than 200,000 in the last week.
That rate was well above the average that has been seen throughout the pandemic, and the trend is concerning as the Delta variant may pose greater danger to children, most of whom are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines.
The academy collected COVID-19 data from 49 states, New York City, Puerto Rico and Guam. Overall, the rate of child COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 26 was 6,374 cases per 100,000 children in the population, according to the AAP.
Twenty states reported more than 8,000 cases per 100,000. Tennessee, South Carolina, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Arkansas and Mississippi had the highest rates of child cases per 100,000 kids, according to the AAP data.
There was one bit of good news in the statistics.
"At this time, it appears that severe illness due to COVID-19 is uncommon among children," the AAP report concluded. "However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects."
At this time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools — regardless of vaccination status.
"I can tell you that most of the places where we're seeing surges and outbreaks are in places that are not implementing our current guidance," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said recently, adding that it's not hospitalizations that are spiking, but number of cases, CBS News reported.
Meanwhile, several school districts are taking things one step further than masking by requiring staff to get vaccinated – including New York City, Chicago and all of California – as experts say one way to keep kids safe is for the adults around them to be vaccinated, CBS News reported.
But the governors of Texas and Florida have threatened to punish districts that implement mask mandates in schools, though many districts are defying their orders.
On the other side, the U.S. Department of Education announced it is investigating five states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — over concerns that their mask mandate bans could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19.
"Masks save lives and reduce the transmission of COVID-19," Dr. Leslie Diaz, an infectious disease specialist at Jupiter Medical Center in Florida, said Wednesday on CBSN.
"The science is there, masks work and we should utilize them," Diaz said. "Especially in the school district and in the schools that are inundated now with all of the kids coming back and not doing virtual learning."
The science proves masks work in preventing the spread of COVID-19, she said.
"We are in a crisis... the reality is there every day of my life. I can't dismiss it," Diaz said. "Wearing masks has become very relaxed behavior around here, and around the United States. It shouldn't be."