SAN DIEGO — Representatives from California’s leading children’s hospitals joined together Thursday to advocate for more youth vaccinations against COVID-19.

They met up in a virtual conference led by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla in an effort to raise awareness to the rise in youth cases of COVID-19 with the goal to bring vaccination numbers up in children. In California, kids 17 and younger now make up more than 18% of COVID-19 cases and health experts expect that number to grow.

Since Jan. 8, the number of cases among children spiked by more than half a million. To date, nearly 1.4 million kids in the state have now had the virus.

“Scientists with months of careful research report that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and it is effective for kids, it lessens complications of COVID-19,” Padilla said.

More than 2.85 million or 90.8% of San Diegans age 5 and older are at least partially vaccinated and more than 2.51 million or 79.9% are fully vaccinated. A total of 1,021,730 — or 49.9% of San Diegans who are fully vaccinated — have received a booster, according to the HHSA.

Boosters are currently available for everyone 12 years and older.

Dr. Grace Lee, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and associate chief medical officer for practice innovation at Stanford Children’s Health, shared that more than two-thirds of children between the ages of 5 and 11 remain unvaccinated.

COVID-19 now is the eighth leading cause of death for children in that age group.

Physical illness and hospitalization are just two things doctors want to minimize in children due to COVID-19, but Dr. Patrick Frias with Rady Children’s Hospital also spoke about the impacts on mental health effects.

“Patients arriving at the emergency department is up 24% from the beginning of the public health emergency,” Frias said. “That steep and abrupt increase is on the back of being super busy, at capacity, stretched and strained. Now we’re seeing this increase in the mental health crisis and pandemic.”

Click or tap here to see no-cost COVID-19 testing sites in San Diego County. Vaccination locations in the county are available here as well as through the federal government’s vaccination website, vaccines.gov.

City News Service contributed to this report.