Protesters against the vaccine mandate for employees of the Medical Center at Atrium Health in Macon march by the hospital emergency room entrance on Saturday, August 14. Only a fraction of the about 100 protesters were Medical Center employees.

Protesters against the vaccine mandate for employees of the Medical Center at Atrium Health in Macon march by the hospital emergency room entrance Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Only a fraction of the about 100 protesters were employees of the Medical Center.

Credit: Grant Blankenship / GPB News

Dr. Edward Clark, chief medical officer of the Beverly Knight Olson Children's Hospital and head of pediatrics for the Medical Center at Atrium Health, says he is running out of hospital beds.

“We're kind of working at our limits,” Clark said Wednesday outside the Macon hospital. The pediatric intensive and medium care units are nearly full in the second largest hospital in Georgia. 

“The COVID unit has basically tripled in size as far as the number of beds that we're able to have for our pediatric population,” he said. 

That’s compared to this time last year. Clark said that’s because the delta variant of the coronavirus is just incredibly contagious. 

For instance, last year someone sick with COVID-19 might have infected two people in a crowded room. But Clark said now someone sick with coronavirus could infect 10 people due to the delta variant’s contagiousness. 

COVID-19 cases are growing exponentially among Georgia children — something the state didn’t see happen last year — with the fever line graph of infection rates among school-aged kids going nearly vertical. 

Cases are booming in the region served by the Olson Children’s Hospital, too.  According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, COVID-19 cases in school-aged kids have tripled in Bibb County and doubled in Houston County in just the past two weeks.  

Those are just the recorded cases. Clark said when children are tested, there’s evidence of many more unrecorded cases. 

“We're seeing anywhere from 17 to 20 percent that are going to be positive,” he said. 

When 5% of COVID-19 tests come back positive, that is considered a sign that most cases are being caught, but at four times that percentage, it’s likely there’s a lot of children who have the virus and don’t know it, Clark explained. 

That might pose risks as children return to school, but Clark said returning to virtual school is not the solution.

“I really don't think we can go another year without kids having one-on-one interaction in the classroom,” he said. 

That's why he supports using masks in school, a measure Gov. Brian Kemp has refused to endorse.

“The masks are going to decrease the spread of the disease,” Clark said.

There’s also the vaccine. Clark said not a single child in Olson Children’s Hospital with COVID has been vaccinated. Vaccines currently are not available for those under the age of 12.

Many are too young for the vaccine, and Clark said adults bear a special responsibility for them. 

“Those people who are surrounding those kids who are not vaccinated, they need to do everything they can to protect themselves and to decrease the risk of spreading to their child,” he said. 

In Middle Georgia, many are still resistant to being vaccinated. Only about 35% of people in Bibb County have done so. 

The Medical Center at Atrium, the parent hospital of the children’s hospital, has mandated all employees get vaccinated by October. That measure inspired a small protest of about 100 people last week. Only a fraction of those protesting were health care workers. An even smaller number were apparently Medical Center employees. 

It isn’t every child in Clark’s hospital who has to wait on their caregivers to be vaccinated. Children 12 and older have been eligible for the vaccine for some time now.  

Clark said the hospital is seeing many vaccine-eligible children sickened and need of care. 

“We've had kids upstairs who are old enough to be vaccinated that have gotten into trouble,” he said. 

So far only about 13% of eligible Georgia children have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Studies remain ongoing about the effectiveness of the vaccines for children under the age of 12, but scientists and public health officials hope the shots could be made available for the younger group in coming months.