Ask the Doctor: With Delta Variant Rampant, How Can Parents Protect Young Kids from COVID this Summer and Fall?
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If you are a parent of a child under 12 years old, you may find yourself in a challenging situation at the moment.
The most recent vaccination timelines indicate that your child will not be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine until mid-winter. However, with vaccines widely available to adolescents, teenagers, and adults, it may seem like the country is slowly returning to normalcy. Restaurants are bustling, movie theaters are open, and professional sports are back in full swing.
Nevertheless, the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reverse their masking recommendations for schools. The CDC is now urging all students and personnel in K-12 settings, whether vaccinated or not, to wear masks. With COVID-19 cases increasing by over 200% nationwide in the past month, and with higher transmission rates in areas with low vaccination rates, the risks of the pandemic to children have not diminished.
Rebecca Wurtz, a professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, explained that the Delta variant has essentially reset the COVID-19 situation to what it was in March 2020 for those who are unvaccinated, including children.
Given this complex situation, many parents are unsure of how to safely navigate the upcoming back-to-school season. To provide some clarity, we consulted health experts and here is what they had to say:
1. Is the Delta variant more dangerous for children than previous strains of COVID-19?
In short, the answer is both yes and no.
The level of danger to children involves two key aspects. First, how likely is it for a child to contract the virus? Second, if a child tests positive, how likely are they to experience severe outcomes such as hospitalization or long-term symptoms?
Regarding the first aspect, the Delta variant is significantly more transmissible than previous strains of COVID-19. As the dominant strain in the U.S., there is an increased risk of unvaccinated individuals, including children, contracting the virus.
However, in terms of the second aspect, there is currently no evidence to suggest that young people who test positive for the Delta variant are experiencing more severe illness compared to previous strains. According to Ishminder Kaur, a professor of pediatrics at UCLA, there may be an increase in the number of cases, but not in the severity of the illness.
Janet Englund, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, emphasized that across all strains of the virus, children are less likely to become seriously ill compared to adults. This is encouraging news.
While there is a rare but severe condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome that appears to be linked to COVID-19 in children, the absolute risk of death from the coronavirus in children is extremely low, approximately 2 in a million, according to recent figures from the United Kingdom.
2. Is in-person learning safe for the upcoming fall semester?
Although there are exceptions, numerous academic studies have shown that for the majority of students, learning in the classroom has positive academic and socio-emotional outcomes.
During the previous school year, a collection of 130 studies concluded that schools were not major sources of community spread as long as safety measures such as ventilation, masking, and physical distancing were implemented and infection rates in the surrounding area were under control.
Amruta Padhye, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Missouri, encourages children to return to in-person learning in the fall to benefit from the advantages of face-to-face education. The White House officials have also stated that schools should aim to be "100 percent" open this fall.
However, a safe reopening of schools relies on the implementation of protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus. So, what specific combinations of measures make a school "safe"? Read on for more information.
3. What if my child’s school does not require masks?
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According to Burbio’s mask tracker, seven states still prohibit school districts from mandating face coverings in the classroom, while another six states require all schools to enforce universal masking. In most other states, the decision is left up to individual school systems.
Given the intense debates and rapidly changing guidance caused by the Delta variant, parents have valid concerns about how to navigate face coverings in schools.
However, research is clear that masks have been proven to reduce virus transmission and protect unvaccinated individuals. It is advised to still have your child wear a mask even if your school or state does not require it, as it provides an additional barrier.
In addition to face coverings, implementing layered virus mitigation strategies is crucial. These strategies involve using multiple approaches consistently. One key measure is maintaining three-foot distancing, although this can be challenging in crowded classrooms.
When face masks are not required and proper distancing is not possible, parents can advocate for other approaches, such as smaller groups of students working together, prioritizing outdoor activities, avoiding large indoor events, and maximizing airflow through ventilation and HEPA filters.
Screening for COVID symptoms, such as temperature checks, can help prevent highly contagious individuals from entering the school building. Although there will always be asymptomatic cases among children, those with symptoms tend to have a higher viral load, making them potentially more infectious.
Vaccination is a strong defense against the Delta variant, and parents can ensure that those within their immediate circle are immunized to limit their child’s exposure. This concept, known as "cocooning," is a public health technique used to protect vulnerable individuals. It involves ensuring that caretakers and other individuals in close contact with the child are vaccinated.
Encouraging vaccination among school personnel, activity providers, and extended family members can also contribute to the cocooning approach and provide an additional layer of protection.
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