At least 20 children in Illinois have come down with a rare but severe illness linked to COVID-19, placing Illinois among the top seven states in the country for the number of cases, according to a new federal report.
Illinois, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and California each had between 21 and 30 cases from March to July, according to an article recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts had more than 31 incidences each.
The illness — called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C — can generally appear two to four weeks after the onset of COVID-19 in a child or adolescent. Symptoms can include a rash, fever, red eyes, swollen hands and feet, vomiting and abdominal pain. It’s an inflammatory illness, meaning the body’s immune system revs up and begins to attack healthy tissue.
Nationwide, 570 cases had been reported to the CDC as of July 29, by 40 state health departments, the District of Columbia and New York City. Among those cases, children stayed in the hospital for a median of six days; 364 children had to go to intensive care; and 10 children died.
Illinois has reported 24 cases of the illness to the CDC, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. No children in Illinois have died of the sickness.
The illness has, so far, been affecting Black and Latino children more than white children — similar to how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Latino people. Of the 570 cases nationwide, 40.5% of the patients were Hispanic or Latino; 33.1% were Black; and 13.2% were white.
About two-thirds of children had no underlying medical conditions before they fell ill with MIS-C.
In many ways, the report’s findings mirror what Chicago-area hospitals are seeing.
Advocate Children’s Hospital has treated about a dozen children with the syndrome, said Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer at the hospital, which has campuses in Park Ridge and Oak Lawn.
“Pretty much every kid we’ve seen with this has been pretty sick, and it’s involved multiple systems in their body,” Belmonte said. Most of the patients at Advocate Children’s have needed intensive care and many were put on ventilators.
University of Chicago Medicine’s Comer Children’s Hospital has seen at least seven patients with the illness, all of whom needed intensive care, said Dr. Julia Rosebush, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Comer.
Many of the patients at Advocate Children’s have been Latino, and all the patients at Comer have been Latino or Black. Most of the patients at Advocate have been between the ages of 5 and 12, while Comer’s patients have ranged in age from 2 to 18.
In some cases, the illness has damaged kids’ kidneys, and doctors are also seeing inflammation and enlargement of the heart muscle, Belmonte said. He said many of the children, even after they’ve recovered, will need to have their hearts checked for at least several years to see if the illness caused lasting damage.
“What the children may experience in the future as a result of this, we just haven’t seen it long enough to know if there may be adverse effects later in life,” Rosebush said.
Still, the doctors said, children seem to be recovering well from the sickness. They’re typically being treated with steroids and/or convalescent plasma at Advocate Children’s. Doctors at Comer have been treating patients with steroids, a drug called anakinra that can help with inflammation and infusions of immunoglobulins, which are antibodies collected from donated blood.
“Children are the most resilient of all the populations,” Belmonte said. “We’ve literally seen kids on death’s door that have gone home after several weeks of hospitalization. They’ve made really miraculous recoveries.”
The CDC report comes as many parents prepare to send their children back to classrooms in coming weeks. But Belmonte and Rosebush noted that MIS-C is still rare and probably not a reason for most parents to panic.
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“The vast majority of children, should they become infected with COVID-19, will not experience this as a result of the infection,” Rosebush said.
Illinois has had 20,057 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people younger than 20, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“Given how exceedingly rare this condition is, and how infrequently it is seen, I think I would be hard-pressed to say this should be a primary reason why kids should refrain from attending school,” Rosebush said. “If the decision is made by the parent to keep the child home, it should probably be made on account of other factors and not solely on MIS-C.”
Researchers are still working to understand why some children get MIS-C after being exposed to COVID-19, while most do not. But they suspect some children may have a genetic predisposition to developing it, Rosebush said.
Though the symptoms of the illness sound common, Belmonte said the children Advocate has seen have been very sick, often acting lethargic, not responsive and not eating. He advises parents who have questions about their children’s health to call their pediatricians.