Communities can expect a surge of new COVID-19 cases two weeks after children go back to school, says a Nemours Children’s Health System doctor.
The country also will run out of COVID-19 testing materials, predicts Dr. Ken Alexander, an Orlando infectious disease specialist for the system that owns A.I. du Pont Hospital for Children.
Schools themselves also are likely to see a high rate of absenteeism among staff members with children, especially young children, he said.
A rise in infectious illnesses such as colds, intestinal viruses or flus is common when children return to school after summer or the winter break. Alexander and others say that the Delta variant is more infectious than some other strains.
The Delaware Division of Public Health wouldn’t comment directly on Alexander’s forecast for a surge in cases.
“We continue to be concerned in general about the presence of the Delta variant in Delaware as it appears to be more easily transmissible than other variant strains, especially among the unvaccinated,” said Mary Fenimore, a spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health. “That being said there is no difference in treatment for cases identified as the Delta variant versus other strains so the public health recommendations for isolation or quarantine as needed are no different based on the strain.”
Colonial, Laurel and Milford school districts are among those starting classes on Aug. 30, while most other schools plan to begin in September after Labor Day.
The state joins Alexander in worry over maintaining an adequate supply of testing materials.
“We have a keen eye on supply lines and have been concerned about this for some time,” said Mary Fenimore, a spokeswoman for the Division of Public Health. “We have diversified our testing resources to minimize any potential impact on our testing efforts and continue to work with vendors and distributors to ensure a reinforced supply line.”
Alexander and Dr. Meghan Walls, a Delaware psychologist with Nemours, talked about back-to-school issues during a webinar after Gov. John Carney last week ordered all Delaware schools, kindergarten through twelfth grade, to require students and staff to wear masks when indoors. Some conservative parents reacted by saying they would keep their children out of school.
“I think we all know that what parents want to do more than anything else is the right thing by their kids,” said Alexander. He noted he is a paid consultant and spokesman for the Moderna vaccine.
He believes people who are opposed to vaccines and mask-wearing believe COVID-19 is not dangerous to them or their children.
COVID-19 illness in children usually is mild, he said.
But not for everyone. While the most of the children who get desperately ill have underlying conditions, are obese or are Black or brown, Alexander said he’s had one child who met none of those criteria who died from the illness and was currently treating another who was on a ventilator.
One of the problems with COVID-19 and children, he said, is that there are no indications for who will get really sick.
“We’re not completely out of the woods yet,” Alexander said. “Furthermore, with the emergence of the Delta variant, we are certainly seeing more children with COVID. And we may be seeing more severe COVID in children. The jury’s still out on this, but this Delta variant is not something to be messed around with.”
The opening of schools likely will increase transmission, he said. That will be worse in districts with low masking.
In a typical school year, he said, about 10 days after schools open doctors expect a surge in emergency room, urgent care and primary care visits. He believes many this year will be caused or involved the COVID-19 virus.
Children who have COVID-19 usually will be taken care of at home, meaning they could expose parents and grandparents to the virus. Vaccinated parents may become mildly ill and unvaccinated parents face a risk of more severe disease.
“One of the things I’m very worried about is as we open our schools, children will become infected,” Alexander said, “and even if the children are only mildly ill, they will share their infections with their parents and grandparents. And we will see a surge in severe COVID disease in our adult hospitals.”
The good news about masking, he said, is that there is now good data that schools who employed high rates of masking saw little or no student-to-student, teacher-to-student or student-to-teacher transmission.
He also said that masks are safe to wear all day and many surgeons have worn them for 12 to 14 hours a day in operating rooms and more.
“There’s all sorts of crazy stuff out there,” Alexander said. “I’m a doctor. I work with surgeons. If masks caused injury to people, we’d have a whole country without surgeons.”
Studies that purported to show that masks are dangerous have been discredited, he said. None have been published in reputable journals, he said.
Among his other predictions:
- The Food and Drug Administration will give complete approval to the vaccines already being used, perhaps as early as September.
- Emergency Use Authorization for current vaccines will be approved this year for children ages of 6 and up.
- He expects continued high amounts of unintended and intentional misinformation.
- People will not be able to ask for second test if they test positive once. One only positive test is needed.
“There’s already some inklings that we will again run short of testing in the weeks to come,” he said Aug. 10.
Even with enforced mask wearing, he pointed out, there are no guarantees.
“Nothing works 100%, but it will reduce the risk.” he said. “It will flatten that curve of kids showing up sick, and by masking your children, it will protect you.”
He said he hopes schools will have anti-mask bullying rules in place.
“We cannot allow any child to be bullied because their parents want them to wear a mask. Right?” he said. “We wouldn’t allow a child to bully your kid because your kid doesn’t smoke. We wouldn’t allow a child to be bullied because you want them to wear a seatbelt. We can’t allow them to be bullied because a child is wearing a mask at school.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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