▶ Watch Video: U.S. sees record COVID pediatric hospitalizations

A record level of children under the age of five are being hospitalized amid a climbing COVID-19 infection rate that is fueled by the Omicron variant. The rate of hospitalization for kids under five — who are not yet eligible for the vaccine — is the highest since the pandemic began.

The hospitalization rate among these kids has surged since mid-December to more than 4 in 100,000 children. That’s up from 2.5 per 100,000, according to the CDC.

However, the hospitalization rate overall among kids under 18 remains lower than any other age group. They also account for less than 5% of average new daily admissions, the CDC says.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing Friday that the numbers include kids who are admitted to hospitals due to COVID or other reasons, but then are found to have the virus. 

Experts note the Omicron variant appears to be less severe than other variants, but the sheer fact that it’s spreading so fast — and so many people are getting sick — is putting a strain on employers and on hospitals, Michael George reports for “CBS Saturday Morning.”

Nationally, COVID hospitalizations are up in 46 states, a 40% rise from the previous week’s average. 

“It is so easy to transmit that there are lots of patients that have it, but thanks to the vaccine are experiencing either no symptoms or very mild symptoms,” said Dr. Jo Anna Leuck, assistant dean for Curriculum at TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine.

But unvaccinated individuals who test positive are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized, according to the CDC.

In St. Louis, ICU nurse Denise Huffman said, “We’re seeing younger people die. We’re seeing people dying who are leaving behind young children and teenagers.”

In Florida, the Cleveland Clinic’s hospitals on the Treasure Coast shifted to level red, overwhelmed by patients.

“The storm’s gonna pass, that’s the great news, and what we’re seeing out of other countries, is that it’s a fast, big peak, but then we’ve also seen it also start to decline fairly rapidly compared to some of the other strains,” said Dr. Leuck.

In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, the COVID surge is declining as fast as it began, according to new studies. The CDC says there’s a good chance that could happen in the U.S. as well, but they caution that different parts of the country will likely surge at different times.

President Biden on Friday offered some hope.

“COVID, as we’re dealing with it now, is not here to stay,” he said.

“We’re going to be able to control this. The new normal is not going to be what it is now; it’s going to be better,” he said.

Contributing: The Associated Press