COLUMBUS (WCMH) – As the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 sweeps through Ohio, data shows younger people are making up a larger share of cases because their age groups are the state’s least vaccinated.

“From October to December 2020, on average, only 12% of Ohio’s COVID-19 cases occurred among people under the age of 20,” Ohio Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff told reporters Wednesday in a news conference with other doctors.

“But from May to June 2021,” he continued, “that figure jumped to 20%. Likewise, hospitalizations from those same time periods jumped from 2% to 5%.”

An NBC4 analysis of ODH data finds similar results. Before Ohio’s first vaccinations on Dec. 14, 2020, people in the 0-19 age group were just over 12% of COVID-19 cases. But since Ohioans 16 and up gained access to the vaccine on March 29, the 0-19 age group has seen the most COVID-19 cases of any age group: 20.4%.

Age GroupShare of COVID-19 cases through Dec. 13, 2020Share of COVID-19 cases since March 29Change (pct. pts.)
Data: Ohio Dept. of Health

The 0-19 age group is also Ohio’s least vaccinated – partly because ages 12 and up are eligible – but other young age groups are behind the state average of 48.68%. Less than half of people ages 20-39 have a dose of a vaccine.

Age Group% Vaccination Started
Data: Ohio Dept. of Health. *Only ages 12+ cleared for vaccine.

Doctors: Vaccine safer for children than risking infection

“Lower vaccination rates put children under 12 who don’t yet have a COVID-19 vaccine authorized for their age group at real risk,” Vanderhoff said, “as well as the small percentage of Ohioans who can’t be vaccinated.”

Minors still make up a small percentage of Ohio’s COVID-19 cases – less than 10% – but their risk of contracting the virus and developing complications is not zero.

“While children are less likely than adults to get severely ill from COVID-19,” Vanderhoff said, “they’re not invulnerable. And the pandemic has taken a real toll on children.”

1,225 Ohioans under 18 have been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to ODH data, and seven have died from it. Children can also spread the virus and suffer severe complications like multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C).

“Most kids with MIS-C are very, very sick,” said Dr. Amy Edwards, associate medical director for pediatric infection control at University Hospitals in Cleveland. “The majority of them end up in the ICU. Many of them end up on breathing machines.”

Edwards told reporters that half a percent to 1% of children who get COVID-19 will develop MIS-C.

“One percent is a very small number,” she said, “But when you’re talking about healthy kids running around, and then boom, they’re in the ICU on a ventilator, it’s scary.”

connecticut child teen covid vaccine
Robert Riccoban, age 13, is inoculated by Nurse Karen Pagliaro at Hartford Healthcares mass vaccination center at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford, Connecticut on May 13, 2021. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

That’s why doctors say it’s much safer for children to get vaccinated than risk infection, and why it’s important for people who are around children to get vaccinated, too.

“In general, children have had similar side effects as adults, but I would say even to a lesser degree than we’ve seen in adults,” said Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Manning-Courtney told reporters some children show usual vaccine side effects like arm soreness, headache and fatigue, “but it’s been very well tolerated.”

“We take better care of our children than we do ourselves,” she said. “Well, this is a way to take care of the children in your life – is to vaccinate yourself.”

Delta threatens new surge

Every U.S. state is seeing an increase in cases, driven by the more contagious Delta variant that is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 nationwide.

As of July 3, Vanderhoff said, 36% of cases ODH has genetically sequenced are Delta, up from 15% in the first half of June and less than 1% in late May. He expects analysis from July 4-17 “will confirm that Delta is fast becoming the dominant variant in Ohio.”

ODH is still considering federal and expert guidance before making recommendations for the school year, Vanderhoff said, but Columbus City Schools – Ohio’s largest school district – announced Thursday it will require face coverings.

Vanderhoff said he hopes enough Ohioans choose to get vaccinated to prevent a surge in cases in the winter when people spend more time indoors and the virus spreads more easily.

“This is a winter virus,” he said. “And it should be somewhat alarming to people that in the dead of summer it’s still able to spread in the way that we’re seeing it spread right now.”