As the country recovers and reemerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever for schools and communities to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff, and families. Parents have braved the ups and downs of school openings and closures, met teachers over zoom, endured staffing storages and entertained over-exuberant kids, all the while worrying if it is safe for their kids to return to in-person learning.
More than 12.3 million children have tested positive for Covid-19, representing 1.5% of all hospitalizations from the virus in some states, and an increasing number of deaths, said a study from the American Association of Pediatrics.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that children infected by the Omicron variant were hospitalized at a rate four times higher than with the Delta mutation. Children under five, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, were especially vulnerable to hospitalization and death.
“Omicron is highly transmissible, much more transmissible than the Delta variant was, with a higher replication rate,” said Dr. Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist from Cedars Sinai Medical Center at a recent media briefing. That meant that if someone in the household was sick, “they were more likely to pass it on to not just one, but maybe both children and vice versa.”
At a round-table co-hosted by Ethnic Media Services, California Department of Public Health, and the Vaccinate All 58 Initiative, experts discussed the surge of pediatric infections and hospitalizations over the past three months.
Dr. Soni noted that Omicron peaked in the winter and holiday months when people were spending more time indoors and at gatherings.
“Until pretty recently, it seemed like one of the only silver linings of this pandemic was that the children were not really being as affected as much by Covid,” said Dr. Soni. “They were kind of escaping the worst of this. And we know now very clearly that this changed completely.”
Many parents have resisted having their children vaccinated and tested for the virus, and masking has proved to be a contentious topic. When children get Covid, it has a huge impact on many marginalized families, who have to manage work, quarantine or hospitalization—parents can’t take time off and they are exhausted.
David Roman, Director of Development and Communications at the South Central Family Health Center, sends his 13-month-old son Idris to daycare. “Our son is the most precious thing for us in the whole world. So, bringing him to daycare every day is an act of faith. We’re hopeful that other parents have done the responsible thing and that all the staff has been vaccinated. What we all uniformly share as parents is that our kids are under 5 years old and can’t be vaccinated right now. So, you feel the pressure of it more as a parent, because you can’t get your kids vaccinated even if you wanted to.”
Speakers shared insights and facts without discounting parental fears of the vaccine and its safety. Confusing information on social media- like the Covid vaccine causing infertility, was one reason why some parents were reluctant to vaccinate their children, observed Dr. Jose Luis Perez, chief medical officer at South Central Family Health Center. Currently just 18 percent of eligible children are actually vaccinated.
Dr. Perez advised that “scientists and doctors and all levels of the health care system in the United States are taking the utmost precaution in making sure that this vaccine is effective.”
The virus and the vaccine have been studied more than any other infection or pathogen in the history of time, added Dr. Soni. “We have such a successful roll-out in the 5–11-year-old group. Over 8 million doses in this age group have been given with no major safety signals. So, parents should feel reassured vaccinations are safe for their child.”
If a child is exposed to Covid-19, common symptoms to look out for are fever and chills, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, muscle or body aches a mild cough, even headache take and fatigue, said Dr. Manisha Newaskar, a pediatric pulmonologist at Stanford Children’s Health. “Some people will experience loss of taste and or smell as well.”
Parents should seek medical attention if a child has nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, chest pain or pressure that just does not go away. “Some children may experience shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, severe abdominal pain, confusion and trouble staying awake. If the parents are seeing bluish discoloration of face and lips in the child, then they should be seeking medical attention immediately.”
The CDC offers guidelines on what to do if a child tests positive for Covid.
Remote learning during the pandemic has exacerbated existing educational inequities, undermined the educational attainment of students of all ages, and worsened the growing mental health crisis among youth.
But returning to in-person school for children and adolescents means keeping classroom transmission to a minimum. Masking, hand hygiene and ventilation, paired with the ability to vaccinate 5-11-year-olds, “has played a really big role in keeping the numbers low in schools here in Los Angeles County,” said Dr. Soni.
The American Rescue Plan has provided $122 billion in funding to support Covid preventative measures in schools.
But as counties lift restrictions, getting kids back to school without masks remains a contentious issue. School employee unions are demanding continued mask requirements to protect against unvaccinated children, while some parents want masks to come off because they are uncomfortable for children.
However, California’s school mask mandates will remain until health authorities reassess pediatric infections and hospitalizations on Feb. 28.
“I think we need to continue the mask wearing masks in school until most kids in our country are vaccinated,” said Dr. Newaskar. KN-95, N-95, and surgical masks are recommended over cloth masks which humidify the air and offer less protection. She urged pregnant women to get vaccinated. during pregnancy to help prevent COVID-19 hospitalization among infants aged <6 months.
The reality said Dr Perez, is not zero infectivity. “That’s impossible. The benefit of removing masks from children is important because of the social aspect. And the psychological aspect of being in school has to be balanced with the fact that we are going to have more infections,” advised Dr. Perez.
“But with vaccines and with the current treatments that we have, we minimize the hospitalizations and the morbidity and mortality from this virus.”
“Antivax voices cannot be louder than our voice, a voice backed by science.”
“The deaths we have seen (with Covid) have far surpassed any flu outbreaks over the years,” warned Dr. Soni. “Covid should be thought of as a vaccine-preventable disease.”
“No child should die from this virus.”
Mona Shah does social media strategy and content curation for C-suite executives. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations.
Image credits: Mona Shah