Across the country, young people are making up an increasing portion of coronavirus cases. With the school year underway, many states are reporting alarmingly high levels of pediatric hospitalizations for children with COVID-19. While children have so far made up a relatively small portion of all cases, during the third week of August, children made up just under a quarter of all reported cases.

"The virus is raging in all these children who are unvaccinated, which is why in schools mask mandates are so important," said CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner. "They have no other protection. They're literally sitting ducks."

During the last week of July, roughly 38,000 pediatric cases were reported; during the third week of August, weekly cases reached 180,000.

The high number of hospitalizations continues to put a strain on the hospital system, specifically the availability of ICU beds. In one Georgia hospital, 50 ICU COVID-19 patients were being cared for at one time, compared to the hospital's typical 38 ICU patients. Half of those patients were relying on ventilators to keep breathing.

"I don't think we have experienced this much critical illness in folks, so many people sick at the same time," Dr. Jyotir Mehta, medical director of the hospital's ICU, told the AP. "They are grasping for every hope and you're trying to tell them, 'Look, it's bad,'" he said. "You have to tell them that your loved one is not going to make it."

As of August 26, Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, Mississippi, and Oregon have all reported record high hospitalization rates, exceeding even those seen during previous waves.

Despite the shocking surges, state lawmakers and governors continue to block efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. In Texas, where just 47% of the population is vaccinated compared to 52% nationally, Gov. Greg Abbott, R., has banned mandates on masks and vaccines. In Kentucky, with a 48% vaccination rate, the GOP-led state legislature has barred the Democratic governor from issuing any new mandates on masks or social distancing requirements.

The most obvious cause of the current surge is the highly contagious delta variant, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates. However, children are increasingly becoming a driving force behind the rising cases.

In Tennessee, children make up 36% of reported COVID-19 cases, with the state's pediatric cases increasing by nearly 60% during the third week of August. Meanwhile, Governor Bill Lee has issued an executive order that requires schools to allow parents to opt-out of any mask mandates for their children.

In South Carolina, on the other hand, rising pediatric cases have led the state to declare that children will be required to wear masks while on the school bus starting Monday. During the second and third weeks of August, individuals under the age of 20 made up 30% of the state's COVID-19 cases, compared to just 17% during the same period last year.

Currently, children under the age of 16 are not fully approved to receive the vaccine, and emergency authorization can only be used for children ages 12 and older. Medical experts predict that approval of the vaccine for children ages five to eleven might not come before the end of the year.

With winter pushing families indoors, children back in schools, and the delta variant burning through unvaccinated communities, this pandemic is likely to get a lot worse before it gets any better.