A health official said on Saturday that more hospital admissions among youngsters during a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa caused by the Omicron strain should inspire attention but not panic because infections have been modest.

Concerns were raised last month after a large number of newborns were hospitalised with COVID-19 in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that surrounds Pretoria, raising fears that the Omicron variation could pose a larger risk to young children than other coronavirus variants.

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Scientists have yet to find any evidence of a correlation and have warned that other factors could be at play.

Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in the Gauteng province, which encompasses Tshwane and Johannesburg, stated that 113 of the 1,511 COVID-positive patients in the province’s hospitals were under the age of nine, which is a higher proportion than in prior waves of infection.

“We are reassured by clinician reports that the youngsters have mild disease,” she said, adding that health officials and scientists were looking into what was causing the spike in admissions among children under the age of 18 and hoped to have more information in the next two weeks.

Officials do not yet know which variations the children admitted to hospital have been infected with because only a tiny number of positive COVID-19 tests in South Africa are sent for genetic sequencing.

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Healthcare staff, according to Maluleke, may be operating overly cautiously. “They’d rather have a child in care for a day or two than have a child at home aggravating everything,” she added. “But we really need to wait for the evidence.”

Many COVID-19 patients in Gauteng were complaining of “non-specific” flu-like symptoms such a sore throat, rather than more easily recognized signs like loss of taste or smell, she said.

However, she advised parents and pregnant women, another group that has witnessed an increase in hospital admissions recently, not to dismiss flu-like symptoms and to get checked in case further treatment is required.

“The public should be less afraid but more vigilant,” she continued.

“Despite a recent surge in admissions, Gauteng’s dedicated COVID-19 bed occupancy was remained about 13%,” Maluleke said, adding that “contingency arrangements were in place should capacity become stretched.”

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Scientists are still trying to figure out how serious the Omicron strain causes illness, which was initially discovered in southern Africa last month and has already spread to more than 30 nations, and whether it is resistant to existing vaccines.

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