By Alexandre Gagnant

JOHANNESBURG, December 4 (Reuters)The increase in hospital admissions among children during a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa, caused by the Omicron variant, should prompt vigilance but not panic as the infections were mild, a health official said on Saturday.

Large numbers of infants admitted with COVID-19 last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, have raised concerns that the Omicron variant may pose greater risks to young children than other coronavirus variants.

Scientists have yet to confirm a link and have warned that other factors may be at play.

Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in Gauteng province which includes Tshwane and the largest city of Johannesburg, said that of the 1,511 COVID-positive patients in the province’s hospitals, 113 were under the age of 9, a higher proportion than in previous waves of infection.

“We are comforted by reports from clinicians that children are suffering from mild illness,” she told Reuters in an interview, adding that health officials and scientists were investigating the causes of the increased admissions among younger people and hoped to bring more clarity in the next two weeks.

Since only a small percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in South Africa are sent for genomic sequencing, authorities do not yet know which variants children admitted to hospital have been infected with.

Maluleke said healthcare workers could act out of caution. “They’d rather have a child in care for a day or two than have a child at home and complicate it… but we really have to wait for the evidence,” she said.

She said many COVID-19 patients in Gauteng reported “non-specific” flu-like symptoms like a sore throat, as opposed to more easily identifiable markers like loss of taste or smell.

But she urged parents and pregnant women, another cohort that has seen more hospitalizations recently, not to take flu-like symptoms lightly and get tested in case intervention is needed later.

“The public should be less fearful but vigilant,” she added.

Despite a recent influx of admissions, the occupancy rate of Gauteng’s COVID-19 beds was still only around 13%, said Maluleke, adding that contingency plans were in place if capacity became stretched. .

Scientists are still working to determine the severity of the disease caused by the Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month and since seen in more than 30 countries, and whether it may be more resistant to existing vaccines.

(Report by Alexander Winning edited by Frances Kerry)

(([email protected]; +27 10 346 1076))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.