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Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on children during the Delta wave

| Written by:
Tina Karimi

Tina Karimi

Contributing Editor, Verily

Just as many children are heading back to in-person learning, the highly contagious Delta variant is hitting children harder than previous strains. Here's what we know so far about COVID-19 and children.

Why are more kids getting sick with Delta?

Children are less likely than adults to experience severe COVID-19 illness. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association data, children are between 12- to 15% of all the cases of COVID and 3- to 4% of all the hospitalizations. Because the Delta variant is so infectious, the sheer volume of people getting infected means the number of children hospitalized is going to increase in proportion.

Does Delta cause more severe illness in children?

We need more data on this. A rare but serious complication of COVID-19 is multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a condition where organs like the heart, kidneys, brain, or others become inflamed. This condition emerges 4-6 weeks after a surge, so if there is an increase, we'll be seeing it soon.

What symptoms do kids typically experience with COVID-19?

We have some data on this from the COVID Symptom Study, a project through which individuals can log their own or their children's symptoms through a smartphone app. Children most commonly suffered from headaches, fatigue, fever and sore throat, according to an analysis of children who tested positive and had symptoms reported regularly for at least 28 days.

How long do children feel sick?

Based on data from the COVID Symptom Study, children usually get better quickly (although this data is not specific to the Delta variant). The median length of illness was six days. Younger children recovered more quickly than teenagers.

Can children experience long haul COVID-19?

Although estimates of how common it is vary, multiple studies have now shown long COVID in children, even though children rarely experience severe initial symptoms of COVID-19. Two studies from the UK showed different rates of children experiencing long haul symptoms. Data from Virus Watch, a research study by University College London and the NHS, showed that 4.6% of children had persistent symptoms lasting more than four weeks.

Another UK study of 1,700 schoolchildren showed a similar rate. Around four percent of children had symptoms, such as headache, fatigue and loss of smell, that persisted, with 1.6% showing symptoms for two months or more.

One challenge in studying this is that solid diagnostic criteria have not yet been established for long COVID because symptoms can vary so widely. It's important to do so in order to better understand and treat long COVID in children.

When will a vaccine be available for children?

Clinical trials are currently underway, and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has said the FDA will "move fast" to evaluate data from vaccine companies once it's ready. It's possible a Covid-19 vaccine will be available for kids under the age of 12 before the end of 2021.

Is it safe to send kids to school?

In-person learning can be achieved with moderated social distancing, proper ventilation, masking, and hand-washing. The CDC has recommended masking in schools to curb the spread of the Delta variant, but decisions on how to enforce these guidelines are down to individual communities. The best source of information for parents on COVID-19 policies in the classroom is their local school district.

What should I do if my child gets COVID-19?

Call your doctor if your child has a fever, cough, trouble breathing, sore throat, belly pain, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, dizziness, or just doesn't feel well. Tell your doctor if your child has been exposed or lives in an area with high rates of infection. The doctor can decide whether your child should be tested and what next steps should be. You can treat mild symptoms such as fever and body aches with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin/Advil) following the correct guidelines for drug dosages.

If the doctor thinks your child could have COVID-19, your whole household should stay home until testing is done. Check the CDC's website for details. Keep other members of the family and pets away from the sick child as much as possible. If you can, have your sick child use a separate bathroom. If this isn't possible, wipe down the bathroom frequently using household wipes. Everyone in the family should also frequently wash their hands. Caregivers should wear masks when they're in the same room as a sick child. If your child is over two and can wear a mask without finding it difficult to breathe, they should wear a mask while their caregiver is in the room. Remind your sick child to cover their mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing. If weather allows, open windows to let fresh air circulate.

If your child has the following symptoms, go to the ER:

  • looks very sick to you
  • has breathing problems. Their nostrils may puff with each breath, or their muscles may pull in between the ribs.
  • is very sleepy, dizzy, or disoriented
  • has chest pain
  • has cold, sweaty, pale or blotchy skin
  • has very bad stomach pain

If your child struggles to breathe, is too out of breath to talk or walk, turns blue, or has fainted, call 911.

What can adults do to protect children?

The best way adults can protect children is by getting vaccinated. The less virus there is circulating in the population, the less likely it is that children will become infected.

To learn more about Baseline's COVID-19 efforts and to get involved in research, visit our website.

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