DOVER — As students prepare to return to the classroom in the fall for in-person learning, local pediatricians are recommending families take time this summer to ensure their children will be protected against various viruses, including COVID-19.
Families should check with their pediatrician to see if they are up to date on immunizations, said Dr. Erin Fletcher, DO, Beacon Pediatrics and the pediatrics department chair for Beebe Healthcare. Several pediatrician offices were closed at various points during the state’s shutdown cause by the pandemic.
“The biggest concern I have regarding the effects on the immune system following the pandemic, is missed immunizations,” Dr. Fletcher said. “Some pediatric offices shut down for a period of time, many parents were afraid to take their children to the pediatrician. This resulted in missed well visits and immunizations. I strongly urge parents to check with their pediatrician and make sure that all vaccines are up to date for their child, and get them into the office if they are not.”
Children under the age of 12 are currently not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Although this could change by fall as Pfizer is conducting clinical trials for its COVID-19 vaccine in that population. For now, Dr. Fletcher said the best way to protect youths under 12 is for the adolescents and adults in their lives to get vaccinated and for children to wear a mask and socially distance when inside with other unvaccinated people.
The state is still awaiting guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social-distancing and mask-wearing regulations for next school year.
As of June 18, according to the state’s online data tracker, 1,785 students in kindergarten through 12th grades had tested positive for COVID-19 in school settings since September when schools began to resume in-person learning. That number combines public and private schools.
Since children under age 12 are not being vaccinated yet, they have a higher risk of contracting COVID as compared to vaccinated individuals, said Dr. Colleen Allorto-Horn, DO, a pediatrician at Bayhealth Pediatrics in Milford.
Dr. Allorto-Horn noted that while children are at risk for contracting COVID-19, those under the age of 12 generally have less severe symptoms than older individuals.
Until children can be vaccinated against COVID-19, Dr. Allorto-Horn said they should continue to take all the necessary steps to protect themselves against the virus — which was proven last year to cut down the cases of other viruses such as the flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus.
“In my opinion as a pediatrician, children need to continue wearing masks, social distancing when not masked, and using good hand hygiene,” Dr. Allorto-Horn said. “If you look at the cases of flu and RSV, as well as the number of visits to the pediatrician and emergency departments for colds and fevers, you will see the numbers are quite low compared to prior years. This is no doubt related to wearing masks, good hand-washing, and sanitation procedures in schools and daycare. Fewer germs in the air and on surfaces will yield fewer cases of colds and cases of flu.”
Dr. Fletcher of Beebe said she does not expect significant residual effects from children’s immune systems not being exposed to as many viruses over the past year.
When the body first encounters a virus, it responds and fights it off, explained Dr. Fletcher, which is why individuals are typically more ill the first time they are infected with a specific virus. The body then makes antibodies that fight off the virus and when an individual is exposed again, the body recognizes the virus and can usually fight it off faster.
“As things continue to open up and exposures to all kinds of viruses increase, your body will respond as it always has,” Dr. Fletcher said. “If you have seen the virus before, it will act from memory. If not, it will create that novel immune response. We will likely be seeing more kids who are a little sicker because a greater number of children will be seeing these viruses for the first time after being limited in their physical contact for the past 15 months.”
Dr. Allorto-Horn of Bayhealth echoed a similar sentiment.
“Most children have a strong immune system and being out of contact with other children would not really have much impact on the immune system,” Dr. Allorto-Horn said. “If the child has not had a particular viral infection, then they are susceptible to it no matter if they had been in school this last year or not.”
Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health who has a background in pediatrics, said this is something the DPH will be monitoring as children return to school.
“It’s an unknown for us in pediatrics and the field of public health,” Dr. Rattay said. “Is it possible we might see a little more of some of these basic infections next year if individuals are more clustered together, not wearing masks? We just don’t know at this point. We’re eager to find out but also, it will be interesting if what we learned through COVID are practices that we might be able to incorporate again. Let’s say there is a flu outbreak, would people be willing to wear masks in their work or school settings while that outbreak is dissipating?”
One of the biggest lessons the medical community hopes was learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is the best way to limit the spread of any illness is stay home if an individual has any signs of illness such as coughing, sore throat, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, nausea, etc.
This combined with masks, social distancing and good hygiene should help children protect themselves against the various illnesses that will circulate this fall, said Dr. Allorto-Horn.
“Using these measures together will stop the spread of germs,” she said. “And will keep children from getting sick throughout the school year.”