More children are coming down with COVID-19. Here's what we can do

York Dispatch Editorial Board

York County is in serious contention to win a race few knew it was even running.

In the past week alone, we've recorded 471 new COVID-19 cases among children, a strong enough showing to rank us third behind Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.

It's all too easy to be a bit sanguine about this.

The initial waves of the disease targeted mostly the old and the sick. Conventional wisdom was that young people — even middle-aged people — had little to fear. But the ground has been shifting under our feet for some time as the emergence of a new, more highly transmissible delta variant coincided with a return to in-person learning.

"We're seeing close to double what we were last year," said Penn State Health pediatrician Dr. Jessica Ericson.

And the anecdotes are borne out by hard data.

Just note the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's increasing hospitalization trend lines for minors versus the population at large.

National hospitalization data from the CDC shows a marked increase in severe cases among children through age 17.

Such a shift was inevitable with the return of in-person learning.

School-age children represented 408 of those new cases in York County, the lion's share. The vast majority of these children are unvaccinated, nor would they even be eligible.

For comparison, the far more populous Philadelphia reported 586 new childhood COVID cases last week, with 488 of those occurring in school-age children. In Allegheny County, the figures were 622 total, with 523 of school age.

Only one vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech, has been approved for use among adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17. That one could be made available to children as young as 5 later this fall based on promising trial data. Other childhood COVID vaccines are in the pipeline but they haven't been approved yet.

The chance of severe COVID among children remains limited but it's hardly zero.

Some will suffer the same symptoms — cough, fever, breathing troubles — as their older counterparts.

Earlier this year, a British study found that more than half of children between the ages of 6 and 16 suffered from "long-COVID," with at least one symptom lasting more than 120 days. Still others fall ill from what's called MIS-C, short for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. It's a lethal condition sometimes mistaken for appendicitis that arises weeks after the initial illness due to inflammation of various internal organs.

So what can we do to stem this tide and avoid unnecessary suffering?

Stop me if you've heard this before.

If you qualify for the vaccine, just get it. In this case, you're not just protecting yourself — you're removing one more transmission vector for the young people in your life who don't yet qualify for their own vaccine.

All of us have a responsibility to protect those who can't yet be vaccinated. For parents, teach your children about the importance of masking while indoors or in crowded places. Children are a great deal more resilient than we give them credit for. If you let them choose the mask and make it part of their responsibility — like taking care of the family dog or doing the dishes — they will rise to the occasion.

Ericson said that while there is evidence that children miss out on some social and emotional cues while wearing masks, it is far more detrimental to children's mental health when they are kept home from school.

"They really come to see it as just another piece of clothing," she said.

Finally, bring yourself up to speed — as if you weren't already — on the early symptoms of COVID-19 and its lesser-known cousin, MIS-C. If you suspect your child is sick, keep them home to stop this spread in its tracks.