Even as COVID-19 cases begin to decline following a post-holiday surge, Massachusetts remains a hot spot for a rare but severe disease in children that is linked to the coronavirus.
The state is one of 10 with a high number of cases of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of last Thursday, Massachusetts had reported 61 cases of the disease, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Nationwide, nearly 1,700 cases have been reported across 47 states, including 26 deaths, according to the CDC. No deaths have been reported in Massachusetts.
Because the illness is a post-infection complication of COVID-19, medical experts expect more cases in the coming weeks following a coronavirus surge over the holidays.
“Patients tend to develop MIS-C two to four weeks after getting infected with COVID,” said Dr. Ann Murray, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and primary care pediatrician at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. “So we expect to continue to see new cases even as the number of acute virus cases goes down.”
State health officials have required health care providers to screen and report suspected cases of the mysterious illness since May, when it was first detected.
Symptoms are similar to Kawasaki disease and in some cases can be severe. They include fever, rash, swelling of hands and feet, abdominal pain, diarrhea, as well as inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat.
Many children infected with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, which medical experts say makes it difficult to detect who might be at risk for the new illness.
Most cases of the new illness have occurred in children between the ages of 1 and 14, according to the CDC. The Hispanic and Black communities are disproportionately affected, accounting for about 70% of the cases.
Murray said many children hospitalized with MIS-C often recover quickly — even if their symptoms were so severe they needed to be on life support.
“We’ve seen really quick turnarounds so that children go home to their families, some even within a week, and even return to school,” she said.
While children in Massachusetts have been spared the worst health impacts of COVID-19, they are still getting sick at a much higher rate than adults.
Nearly 20% of the nearly 63,000 COVID-19 cases reported in the past two weeks have been among patients 19 and under, the largest percentage of any age group, according to DPH figures.
Dr. Paul Biddinger, chief of MGH’s Division of Emergency Preparedness, said data on MIS-C show that young people aren’t immune from severe impacts of the coronavirus.
“There is a misperception in the public that COVID is only potentially life-threatening for the elderly,” said Biddinger. “So, this is an important reminder that although it is a rare condition, it’s also a very serious condition that happens in otherwise healthy children and can result in death.”
Biddinger, who heads the state’s COVID-19 advisory committee, said it’s another reason that people need to continue practice social distancing and wearing masks even as the state rolls out vaccines.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.