ST. LOUIS — More children and adolescents are testing positive for the coronavirus in the U.S., with the number of new weekly infections quadrupling since late June.
In Missouri, where more than 61,000 children and adolescents have tested positive for the virus and five have died from COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, infections increased about 4% over a two-week period in July.
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Though COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available for adults and adolescents in the U.S., the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved them for children under the age of 12. Biotech companies Pfizer and Moderna are testing vaccines in children as young as 6 months, but approval from federal regulators is likely months away.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan spoke with Dr. Delene Musielak, a St. Luke’s Hospital pediatrician, about the risks to young children during the pandemic, when they should wear masks and the return to in-person learning this fall.
Shahla Farzan: How does the coronavirus affect kids?
Delene Musielak: Kids who are less than around 12 or 14 have a decreased risk; they don’t get as sick and usually are asymptomatic. Kids who are less than 2 have a little higher chance [of developing more severe illness], and part of that is just because they’re new to this world and their immune system hasn’t been exposed to too many things yet.
We know that kids a lot of times can carry the virus and not necessarily have symptoms. Especially with the delta variant, we’ve learned that it’s just as contagious for kids as it is [for] adults. I think the reason why the numbers for kids weren’t as high is we took them out of school, we started social distancing, things like that. So they really weren’t together at that point when things got to the peak of the pandemic. But now we’re seeing those numbers increase again with the delta variant.
Farzan: We know that the delta variant is responsible for outbreaks in Missouri and elsewhere and now makes up the majority of new infections. Should parents be concerned?
Musielak: As parents, we should always be concerned and protective of our children. Of course we don’t want to raise anxiety or fear in our children, but again, it’s a reminder that we still need to continue to take those steps of wearing our masks, socially distancing, doing appropriate hand hygiene.
Farzan: So the delta variant is more contagious than other coronavirus variants, but is it more dangerous for children?
Musielak: At this time, not that we’ve seen.
Farzan: What are your thoughts on masking? Are there certain times when young, unvaccinated children should definitely be wearing masks?
Musielak: I think definitely when they’re around other people, especially if they’re going back to school, or close quarters where we can’t necessarily ask people if they’re vaccinated or not. Now, if you’re in a household where you know the parents are vaccinated, the grandparents are vaccinated, those are places that it’s safe. But if your kids are in a smaller area where more people are that you can’t necessarily know their status, I would recommend that they go ahead and mask.
Farzan: What about indoor activities where masks aren’t really an option, like eating indoors at a restaurant?
Musielak: That gets a little tricky. Nobody’s come up with a great idea for eating with your mask on. At that point, they would have to pull down their masks once they’re eating. I think for sure if kids are going into an enclosed area, especially with people who you don’t know their vaccination status, they should be wearing a mask.
Farzan: Another thing that’s top of mind for many parents is whether they should send their children back to school if they haven’t been vaccinated yet. What are your thoughts on that?
Musielak: Overall, I think it is important for kids to get back into school. We’ve seen such a decline in mental health and a rise in depression, anxiety and suicide [and] part of it is that kids are feeling isolated with the pandemic.
The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement that masks should be mandated for kids going back to school, whether a child is vaccinated or not. Part of that is because there will be children there who aren’t vaccinated. As far as schools mandating the vaccination, I’m not sure if we’ll ever get to that point. Currently, there are some vaccinations that are mandated in order for kids to be around other children, but some of them are optional. So we’ll see in the future where that goes. But I think definitely masking, social distancing, hand hygiene — just encouraging your child as they go back to school to try and practice those safe responsibilities.
Farzan: I’m hearing from some families that they’d like to get together, maybe have one of those long-awaited family reunions that they’ve been putting off, but that they’re nervous because not all the adults there will be vaccinated. Do you have any advice for parents who are trying to navigate this situation right now?
Musielak: I think if families are wanting to get together … at least those are people who are approachable that you can ask for their vaccination status. I feel overall, most people should be understanding — especially when kids are involved — that you want to be safer. If it’s limiting how many people come to that family gathering, or maybe doing it more so by location that, you know, it isn’t necessarily everybody in the family who meets up and still including a Zoom or some sort of virtual [gathering for] family members if they aren’t vaccinated. But I think not to be fearful of standing up to make sure that everybody is safe.
Farzan: Do we have any idea of when a vaccine could be approved for children under 12?
Musielak: So all the information out there right now seems to point more so at some point in winter that we’ll have a vaccine for that age group. But of course, nothing’s guaranteed at this point.
Farzan: What would you say to a parent who’s feeling conflicted about getting their child vaccinated?
Musielak: I think part of it is just being educated. That’s something as a physician I really tried to do with my patients is to ask them, ‘What questions do you have about the vaccine or vaccines? Why are you on the fence?’ I think the important part is that parents have all the information that they need, so they can weigh everything out and decide what they feel is the best decision for themselves and their children.
Shahla Farzan is a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan