The more contagious Delta variant is spreading fast across the US, but children under 12 cannot get the best protection there is — a vaccine.
Nonetheless, pediatricians say there are still easy things parents can do to keep help kids safe from Covid-19, particularly as they go back to school.
The variant is capable of ‘causing serious injury’ to kids
Severe cases aren’t common among kids, but Covid-19 numbers are higher than any time in the pandemic since November, said Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chief of the division of infectious diseases in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford Medicine and a committee chair with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Her association has been tracking cases and found nearly 72,000 children and teens caught Covid-19 last week. This is a substantial increase from the week before, about five times as many kids who were sick than at the end of June.
“It’s clear that this variant is capable of causing serious injury in children. You heard those stories coming out of Louisiana pediatric ICUs where there are kids as young as a few months old that are sick,” Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN’s John Berman on New Day Tuesday.
“Anyone that says you don’t have to worry about it if you are a young healthy person, you do need to think about it.”
The number one thing parents need to think about, pediatricians say, is the vaccine.
If a parent, or adult in a child’s life isn’t vaccinated yet, get one now, they advise. The same goes for siblings who are old enough.
Parents should also talk to children about why it’s important.
“Make sure you’re having that conversation with them — about why it is important to be vaccinated and how it protects not only them but all those around them,” said Dr. Dane Snyder, section chief of primary care pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Parents may also want talk to anyone interacting with the child about their vaccination status, Maldonado said. If the person isn’t vaccinated, and the parent still feels OK about having them around their unvaccinated child, at least ask them to wear a mask or even consider asking them to get a test before getting together.
“You wouldn’t want your child in a car where someone was driving without seat belts or without a driver’s license,” Maldonado said. “We shouldn’t be afraid to stand up for our children’s health.”
Snyder said parents should also continue to reinforce the message about good hygiene.
For instance, she said, parents should teach kids to cough into their elbows and wash those hands.
“Really, handwashing is one of the number one most effective ways to help prevent the spread of any kind of disease, whether at home or in the community,” Snyder said.
Masks and distance
Three feet of physical distance can reduce the spread of the virus, good ventilation helps, and masks for indoor activity are key, public health experts say.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends everyone older than age 2 wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status, when they go to school.
“The data are very strong that masking continues to be a very effective way to prevent infection,” said Dr. Larry Kociolek, attending physician, infectious disease at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
By some estimates, a mask reduces the risk of catching Covid-19 by about 50% he said. “Masks are most effective in areas where risk of exposure and transmission is high,” Kociolek said.
Dr. Sarah Combs, an emergency medicine physician with Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., said parents can make wearing a mask fun.
“Go ahead and get them a mask with their favorite character and tell them it’s like Superman’s mask. Do whatever you can to engage them, especially the younger ones who have less comprehension,” Combs said.
Snyder recommends parents talk with their kids about wearing a mask at school so that they know what to expect, particularly if a mask isn’t required. “Make sure you’re talking to children about assuming things about kids who either are, or are not masked,” Snyder said.
As for parents and masks, Dr. Amy Edwards, the associate medical director of Pediatric Infection Control at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, suggests even parents who are vaccinated should wear a mask whenever out in public. “That way they will be less likely to contract Covid and bring it home,” said Edwards.
The risk of catching Covid-19 is much lower if the child is playing outdoors.
Edwards said she limits her own kids to outdoor play only with their friends. “It’s fine to play with the neighbors’ kids, but only outside in the yard, not inside in the playroom or in the bedroom or anything like that, where there is closer indoor contact — which is a bigger problem,” she said.
With older kids who like video games, Edwards said a parent could set up time for them to stream together, even if they are in different rooms.
“Try to think of creative ways that kids can play together but limit their exposure,” Edwards said.
There’s an added benefit to outside play. “It’s not only safer from a Covid-19 standpoint — physical activity is a real benefit to their health,” Kociolek said, especially in light of rising child obesity rates in the Chicago area since the pandemic started.
Talk to your children
Conversations with kids about Covid-19 are essential, pediatricians say. Kids are like sponges, Combs said.
“Even at that very young age they pick up on their environment, they pick up on your emotional cues. And if we try and keep things from kids, they get more suspicious and more anxious,” Combs said.
So even a toddler can understand the basics.
Edwards says she’s even talked to her children, ages 2 and 4, about the Delta variant. “I’ve told them the virus kind of grew up and has gotten a little bit stronger, so we have to fight a little bit harder,” Edwards said.
With teens, parents don’t want to make them more anxious, so be matter of fact about it, Combs said. It may help to acknowledge it can be scary, even for parents. “That’s OK, because we know of things and ways to lessen the risk and to help all of us in the family keep safe,” Combs said.
Combs added it’s also good to encourage the kids to be open, especially if they are not feeling well, so that parents can keep them home and remind the child that staying home isn’t a punishment — it is to keep people safe.
Edwards said clear communication and reassurance are important with kids.
“How many times did we tell our parents growing up, ‘this is not fair,’ and our parents would tell us ‘life is not fair?'” Edwards said. “For kids, this pandemic is the ultimate ‘life is not fair.’ We need to let them know we are doing whatever we can to help them.”
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