What an Oregon pediatric doctor wants parents to know about COVID-19 as schools reopen

dr. Dawn Nolt, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Oregon Health and Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, said pediatricians agree that the personal school could operate safely this fall, provided mitigation measures are taken.

Clear Lake Elementary students arrive this past March for their first day of personal school (File).

There are still many pediatricians and infectious disease experts who don’t know how the more contagious Delta variant of COVID spreads among children, said Dr. Dawn Nolt.

dr. Dawn Nolt, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Oregon Health and Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, said pediatricians agree that the personal school could operate safely this fall, provided mitigation measures are taken.

“In general, we think the priority should be personal education,” Nolt said. “Once you have that, the next priority is how to keep them safe.”

The issue has taken on new meaning as the school is less than a week away from opening in Salem-Keizer and many of Oregon’s largest counties. While children 12 and older have the option to get vaccinated against COVID, their younger classmates do not.

Nolt said this means it’s up to the adults around young children to make sure they’re protected and to prevent outbreaks that could lead to quarantines, school closures and sick children — problems some districts in other parts of the country have previously experienced. schools have opened, have ravaged.

Nolt said she understands why parents are concerned when they see headlines about young children with severe cases of COVID or children’s hospital beds filling up in other parts of the country. But she said it’s also important to remember that it’s very unlikely that young children will develop a serious illness from COVID that requires hospitalization.

“The studies at the beginning of the pandemic showed that they are less likely to get infected. They are less likely to have serious illnesses” compared to adolescents and adults, Nolt said. So is the Delta variant, she said.

She said reports from southeastern states where children with COVID are filling children’s hospitals reflect rising COVID infections in all age groups, not just children.

“It is not the case that the Delta variant makes those children sicker. We only see such large numbers of children becoming infected that even a small percentage who eventually need ICU care is hospitalized a large number. Here in Oregon, we don’t see the number of children getting infected,” she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 15,099 Oregonians aged nine and under have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Of these, 164 have been hospitalized, about 1%, and one has died.

The number of Oregon children testing positive for COVID has risen significantly in the past month as cases have risen across all age groups, according to data from the Oregon Health Authority.

The number of new infections is highest among 12 to 17 year olds who are eligible for vaccination. Household transmission is the most common source of infection for children who become ill, rather than an outdoor outbreak or an unknown source.

About three in five children who test positive for COVID report symptoms of illness, the most common being coughing.

Pacific Islander, Latino, Native American and Black children also contract more COVID than white, Asian and multiracial children, state data shows.

State data also shows that the number of hospital admissions for children remains low and that there is a much better supply of pediatric hospital beds than beds for adults. During the week of Aug. 8, OHA reported five children aged five and under hospitalized statewide with COVID, as well as one child between the ages of six and 11 and one child between the ages of 12 and 17.

As of August 25, about one in five beds in Oregon’s infant and child intensive care unit was empty — a much higher proportion than for adults, where less than 8% of the beds were empty.

Nolt said masking and vaccinating adults who will be around unvaccinated children remain key strategies to prevent the spread of COVID in schools.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown requires students, staff and visitors at all schools in Oregon to wear masks indoors, and requires K-12 teachers and school staff to be vaccinated against COVID.

Well-fitting, double-layer masks remain important, Nolt said, despite opposition from some parents and educators who oppose. A common abstention from people opposed to masks is that the virus is too small to be caught by a cloth mask, but Nolt said the mask is meant to catch droplets and it can do it effectively.

“The virus particle itself is super small, but it is carried by this delicious, juicy liquid. And that’s bigger than the mask openings. That’s what we’re trying to capture, not the virus,” she said.

Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, agreed that examples from other countries show schools can reopen safely, but he said the increased portability of the Delta variant means precautions are becoming more important.

While children are unlikely to become seriously ill, it is still important to prevent them from becoming infected, as they can carry the virus home and infect vulnerable family members.

“We have to be extra careful,” he said. Like Nolt, he said masks and vaccinations for adults who interact with students are important, as is good ventilation in buildings.

He said schools should keep windows open whenever possible, use HEPA air filters and keep lunch outside if they can so that students who unmask their masks are less likely to inhale a virus.

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