Richmond, Va. (WRIC) — New data from the Virginia Department of Health shows the percentage of children among patients hospitalized with COVID-19 is increasing. Experts say the shift demonstrates the urgency of youth vaccinations and the need for continued precautions in school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been tracking a similar trend across the South where there is an alarming spike in cases among children just as many are returning to in-person learning. Nationwide data shows a four-fold increase in the past month.

AAP’s Virginia Chapter President Dr. Michael Martin said Virginia isn’t seeing full pediatric ICU units like some other states.

However, Martin said the Commonwealth is seeing an increase in cases that came on suddenly for local providers.

“We went three or four weeks without seeing a single case and within a week we were seeing eight to ten,” Martin said. “I think we are going to see some form of surge and I think it will be regionally different based on vaccine rates and the steps that are taken to mitigate like mask-wearing.”

For Virginians ages 0 to 19, there have been 119,574 cumulative cases, 745 hospitalizations and 9 deaths. That’s a hospitalization rate of 0.6 percent and a death rate of 0.01 percent, according to an AAP database published on Aug. 19.

“Kids who have asthma or are immunocompromised are the kids at a greater risk that are going to get hospitalized in a greater proportion than what we have seen,” Martin said. “I feel confident that schools can comfortably reopen safely…but this needs to be taken seriously.”

For much of the pandemic, the bulk of hospitalizations came from those 65 and older.

But that’s started to change over the past few months. Children are making up an increasing portion of hospitalizations.

According to VDH’s Data Analytics Manager Em Stephens, the comparative rate of hospitalizations among those ages 0 to 9 has increased by 500 percent since January, as shown by the yellow bars on the graph below.

This chart shows how hospitalization rates stack up among different age groups. (Photo: VDH)

In an analysis posted on Aug. 23, VDH indicated the trend is likely driven by differences in the vaccination rates among age groups. The agency said 83 percent of Virginians aged 65 and older are currently vaccinated, compared to just 18 percent of those under the age of 18.

Stephens said, as of Aug.15, the rate of infection was roughly 2.7 times higher for unvaccinated Virginians ages 10 to 19 compared to vaccinated people in that age group with breakthrough cases.

“All of it is pointing to the idea that the vaccine is effective,” Stephens said.

This chart compares breakthrough infections among vaccinated Virginians to cases in unvaccinated Virginians by age group.

Currently, vaccines are available to children over the age of 12, but many remain unvaccinated. Children under 12 won’t be able to receive the vaccine until September at the earliest, according to State Vaccination Coordinator Dr. Danny Avula.

Overall daily COVID-19 case counts for Virginia (in the graph above) are still less than half of what they were during the peak of transmission in early January. But VDH data shows transmission among children hasn’t followed the overall pattern.

Data visualizations produced by 8News (below) show daily case counts among children in Central Virginia are already approaching the January peak – meaning children are making up a larger portion of this surge.