Since schools reopened this fall, school-age children have had the highest rate of new COVID cases in Grays Harbor County and beyond.
However, during the almost two-year pandemic, “We have learned a lot about children” and COVID, Summit Pacific Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ken Dietrich told the county board of health on Thursday, Oct. 28. One of the biggest lessons: kids are much better off when schools are open for in-person instruction.
With minimal risk to school-age children from the virus, less than there is from influenza, the American Academy of Pediatrics has been advocating all along that kids should be in school, said Dietrich.
“And what we’ve learned over the last year — trying to keep children out of school to protect them from getting the infection and spreading the infection — is that there are a lot of downsides to this related to their mental health,” he said.
“Our suicide rate has increased, children are not eating as well, (there are) food scarcity issues, all the things that school provide, as well as just the structure and the support they need socially and emotionally.”
Based on that, Dietrich believes children should be in school, taking the obvious precautions like masking, social distancing and, when available, getting vaccinated. And, he personally believes, small outbreaks in schools should not shut them down entirely.
“One of the things I see schools doing now is when they have a couple of cases of COVID that are positive in their schools they’ll close down the whole school and send everybody home,” he said.
“And we’re not going to prevent these children from getting infected. They’re either going to get the virus, the vaccine or they’re going to get the infection, and if they get the infection it’s going to be a really mild infection.”
Dietrich said that is his own personal opinion, and he has real life examples to back it up.
“In my own family, we have three children and 11 grandchildren, and my children got vaccinated,” he said. “But the kids went back to school and the kids brought it home and they all got it, and they all got over it. Their parents who got vaccinated had a little runny nose for a week and they were fine.”
There can be extenuating circumstance, like those who have other health issues, but overall, adults who are vaccinated and children, vaccinated or not, are at low risk for major health issues related to a COVID infection.
“I think we have the potential of causing some downstream harm to our children by closing schools, trying to control this spread of infection that is extremely, extremely infectious,” said Dietrich.
County Commissioner Vickie Raines asked Dietrich if, when vaccines are available for younger kids, he would encourage them to get vaccinated.
“Yes, they will get the vaccination,” he said.
Why, when everyone has already had the virus, Dietrich was asked.
“We’ve learned a lot about natural immunity and, like the vaccine, natural immunity wanes. Like with the vaccine, our natural immunity or response seems to have waned about around six months after” infection or vaccination, he said.
“So in the first two months you have a kind of ramped up immune response, so getting the vaccine at that time or before that isn’t going to do it, it’s not going to cause more immune response, you’ve already gotten the immune response.”
But after the first two months, and the months after that, the immune response weakens, and that’s the time to get a booster dose.
“It will recharge the immune system to cause it to be ready for the next infection,” said Dietrich. “And we see this historically, for many many many years with other types of vaccines that we do in children, for example, who get a booster at two months, four months and six months. And that is building up their immunity to new viruses or new types of viruses.”
Dietrich said he respected the fact that vaccination is a personal choice, but believes it’s a valuable tool in stopping the spread and helps keep kids in school.
“If I could educate the population in general, know that you’re not going to get away from this, from the virus. You’re going to get the infection, or you’re going to get the vaccine, and you make your choice on which one’s best,” he said. “But in the midst of that, for the kids, there’s a big downside. Kids need to be in school, they need to be in that structure, they need to be learning.”
The year of online learning punctuated that for Dietrich, as he watched his own grandchildren struggle with not being in school.
“I wish we had a repeat, we could repeat the year, because I don’t think they learned very much last year,” he said. “And there have been behavioral issues and challenges and loneliness and all those other things. And now they are back, going to school, learning, playing sports.”
COVID affects kids and adults completely differently, said Dietrich.
“Adults tend to have higher fever, a lot more cough, severe headaches and fatigue,” he said. “Symptoms are much less in children. You’re seeing more nasal and upper respiratory tract symptoms, a sore throat, cough, nasal congestion.”
Dietrich provided information from a study that showed the risk of death from influenza outpaces the risk of death from COVID for children.
“The data supports that the risk of death or the number of children dying from COVID is less than the number of children dying from influenza during the first 10 to 15 years of life,” he said. “Then they kind of match up when you get to 20, then they track very similarly after that.”
Overall, COVID is a very different infection for children than it is adults.
“This virus seems to be a very mild infection in children and it seems to be a very harsh infection in adults, particularly adults over 60 or adults with co-morbitities, such as severe obesity, diabetes, hypertension, kidney disease, etc.,” he said.