Vaccination rates in the United States are stagnating and there is one major population that has not yet received a single shot: children under the age of 12. Especially with the emergence of the Delta variant, those vaccinated against the virus are still vulnerable to infection. dr. Annie Murray, a pediatrician at Mass General Hospital who specializes in infectious diseases, joins GBH’s All Things Considered to talk about COVID-19 and children.
Arun Rath: So, Dr. Murray, I think the concern that a lot of people have comes down to this: we’re at this new stage of the pandemic with this highly contagious Delta variant now wreaking havoc – but really wreaking havoc on not -vaccinated. People who have been vaccinated are either protected, or they don’t seem to get very sick. But currently 0% of children under the age of 12 are vaccinated. So with this phase of the vaccine, with this phase of the pandemic, how vulnerable are those kids?
Annie Murray: So kids are definitely vulnerable – especially if they aren’t vaccinated – during the pandemic. They have fallen ill with the virus and fortunately there is less severe disease than in the adult populations, and overall rates of hospitalization and death in pediatrics have remained very, very minor and rare events. But they are certainly susceptible. And I can’t wait for the day when we have a vaccine that is eligible for younger children, and that we know will be as safe and effective as the vaccines have been for the adult population and the older children and adolescents.
Rath: Does the Delta variant change the risk analysis on this point? As you mentioned, in all of this we’ve known that – thankfully – children don’t tend to get as sick as adults. But are things different with a Delta variant, or have things changed in the way you assess risks for children under 12?
Murray: Since the Delta variant is highly contagious and contagious and quickly creates clusters and increased infection rates than previous variants in the pandemic, it is a greater risk to children, and the reason for that is when your high numbers of infection are when you statistically rare, terrible outcomes – such as hospitalizations and deaths and long-term consequences. So we can keep the infections low, then those rare outcomes will remain quite rare. But as soon as contagious variant[s] — like the Delta variant, which is now the most cases — it’s worrying because as those rates go up, we’re going to see those poor results.
Rath: And do we see an increase in COVID cases in children, and does that follow with the increase we see in adults?
Murray: We’re seeing an increase in childhood infections, and I think it’s largely because they make up a large portion of the vulnerable population, because adults in the US have had access to vaccines. And a lot of people have gone out of their way to protect themselves and get vaccinated fully, so rates for children are going up — and they’re still much lower than other, previous peaks in that pandemic, but it’s worrying.
Rath: One of the things that was — I might call it a qualified success story, during the pandemic — was that at least when kids went back to personal education, schools didn’t seem to be much of a hot spot for infection, for spread, even though the children may not be vaccinated. Has this changed anything in how we should feel about kids going back to school in the fall? However, we know that those masks will be back in school.
Murray: Yes, I think the schools have done a great job with all the strategies for mitigating risk. When you are in an indoor environment with a large group of unvaccinated people, there is of course a greater risk of spreading. And the fact that statistically we haven’t seen those increases is something huge to be excited about — and to, really, thank all the people who have kept kids safe with all the mitigation efforts.
I think masks for unvaccinated kids at school are one of the ways to keep that true and to prevent kids from having outbreaks at school. I think staying home when you’re sick, and making that up, and providing shelter so that kids can continue to learn and access the curriculum when they’re sick is really important – and something the schools have really done a great job with. I am therefore looking forward to seeing the students return to the classroom in the fall and expect that they will be safe and that precautions will be taken. And we’ve learned a lot over the past few months about how to mitigate risk, and I think if we follow the same advice and strategies, kids can go to school safely.
Rath: I also wanted to ask you about the mood of young people. I mean, you’re a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases, so I’m sure you talk to young people about risks. It seems to me that kids under 12 — maybe just the world we live in — are much more aware of what’s going on. Especially with the pandemic, you know, many, I’m sure, listening to this conversation, who know all the risks that we’re talking about – all the things that make their parents nervous. So how can we send our kids to school this fall, well prepared but not too taxing?
Murray: Yeah, I think we can do everything we can to make sure they’re at a lower risk, which is to make sure they get their routine care and routine vaccines, that they’re up to date before they go to school, and that when they qualify for the COVID vaccine — hopefully in the coming school year — they get that vaccine protection.
I think it’s also wise to talk to them about which situations are more risky. Like going in with many unvaccinated people without a mask is generally not as safe as putting on your mask and making sure you wear it properly. And I know kids have practiced a lot wearing their masks and have been quite successful in the clinic – and actually hesitated to take them off so I could look in their mouths for the exam because they feel a sense of protection from wearing the mask, and they are generally not bothered by it. So I think they understand a lot.
They have the same fear we all feel about this pandemic and it’s helpful to reassure that we’ve learned ways to keep them safe, but I’ve also seen the joy and relief in my adolescent patients who have been fully vaccinated, and I really hope that will soon be a possibility for the younger kids in the coming months. Because just as I felt such relief when I was fully vaccinated, I’ve seen it in my adolescent patients, and I wish the rest of the kids the same.
Rath: Yeah, and that’s a good thought that one way to talk about this is that we’ve been through this before and, just, we’re going to go back to what we were doing before and we’ll get through it. dr. Murray, this is so helpful and I think we should probably get you up and running again soon to talk some more. Thank you very much.
Murray: Thank you.