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Q&A on Delta variant in schools: Is my child safe?

Despite the threats posed by the Delta variant, there are ways to enhance kids’ safety at school. Here’s what it will take to protect students.

Full Transcript:

Mercedes Carnethon, PhD, Epidemiologist, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine: The virus is circulating among the unvaccinated and one of the largest population blocks of unvaccinated individuals are those who are ineligible for vaccination then. And many of those are the very same children who are in our schools.

Amina Khan, Reporter, Los Angeles Times: My name is Amina Khan and I’m a science writer with the Los Angeles Times. As kids return to schools and the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread, you may be wondering what the risks are to young kids and what strategies we have that are proven to actually help keep kids safe.

Today, we’re going to talk to two medical experts about what the Delta variant means for return to in-person school and what the data tells us about what actually works when it comes to protecting our kids to the extent that we can.

So with me are Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Thank you guys both for joining me today.

Now, with the Delta variant on the loose fueling this rise in cases, what sort of risk does it pose to the kids in our schools? Has the risk changed in any way in terms of whether they’re likely to get the virus or whether they’re more likely to get severe disease, severe COVID-19 if they do get infected?

Aaron Milstone, M.D., M.H.S., Johns Hopkins Hospital: Pediatric infectious disease specialist, Johns Hopkins Hospital: What we know from across the country right now is that more children are being hospitalized with COVID. We think that’s due to the Delta variant. So I think what we’re seeing now is a combination of a very virulent or a very transmissible strain at the same time that people are tired, understandably frustrated with the pandemic and are starting to loosen up those behaviors that really help protect both children and adults from the infection and the virus.

Carnethon: So those children under age 12 in particular, who don’t have an approved vaccine, they become the hosts for the variants and any future variants.

And so it’s particularly important as we try to safely return to school to think about how to protect children so that it does not continue to circulate, because the longer it circulates, it also is at risk of continuing to modify and produce new variants.

Khan: Yes, that’s certainly a troubling trend that we’re seeing here.

Milstone: We keep hearing from many parents who are sending their kids to school, Oh, I don’t need to worry as much about my kids because most kids are not getting sick when they get their infections.

And a lot of people, again, are relying on their experiences from a year ago when they sent their kids to school where we had a different variant.

The transmission patterns may have been different. So I do think people have to remember that each variant brings new experiences. And it’s unfortunately, although we like as humans to kind of use our prior experience to inform our behavior, we still have to be flexible and patient and adapt to change with COVID because that’s just the nature of this pandemic.

Khan: So it does kind of feel like we’re in this big social epidemiological experiment. I mean, not that we necessarily want this to be the case, but in some ways we and our kids specifically are going to be the test subjects.

Carnethon: We have learned a lot over the past year and a half that informs strategies to safely open schools. And it was a central focus on personal protective equipment and masking and holding children, staff and faculty accountable for keeping those masks on.

Milstone: And in addition to that, now we have the vaccines and now you have vaccines, masks, increased ventilation, screening kids for symptoms and hopefully distancing as much as possible. And together, those are strategies that should help kids get back to school safely.

Khan: Is there a proper way to wear a mask? Are all created equal? Will any masks do or do you need a specific type or format of the mask?

Milstone: I would start with the principle that wearing a mask is the most important people wearing a well fitting face mask, whether it’s a cloth mask or procedure mask or a ninety five mask that probably fits your face and covers your face has been shown to be protective.

It’s possible that some mask may be slightly better than others in certain settings. Any mask is more important than trying to enforce a particular type of mask.

Carnethon: You know, I would agree and I’ll give the example. I have young children and they prefer the surgical masks, the disposable surgical masks. They are more breathable. They wear them and the kid size of them happens to fit them both quite perfectly, fully covering their nose, covering their mouth, extending to about the bottom of their chin and staying tight around their faces.

Whereas I would prefer if they would use reusable masks just from a recycling standpoint, I am not bickering with them on this point.

Khan: If I’m a parent with a kid who’s going to school and I’m worried about what protocols are in place to keep my kids safe, what should I be asking the school?

Carnethon: I think I would certainly ask questions about how much groups of children interact and how closely throughout the day. Are they using a pod system or group based system where they don’t have overlapping groups of children together?

I would ask those questions. I would also ask about other strategies such as ventilation. Early on in the pandemic, surface cleaning got a lot of attention. And while it’s critically important to clean surfaces to prevent the transmission of very many pediatric infectious diseases, we learned throughout time that the primary route of transmission of this particular virus is that it’s a respiratory virus.

And so the ventilation, in my opinion, is a much higher priority than expending effort cleaning balls in between children during a PE class where they’re also wearing masks and cleaned their hands walking in.

I think those strategies do border on a little bit of theater as far as demonstrating cleanliness.

Milstone: Parents can also ask about access to opportunities for handwashing. Are they going to have ample products for kids to wash their hands and clean hands after gym class or before meals, etc.?

Carnethon: One thing I’d like to see schools really consider and questions that I would certainly ask is how is the school holding parents accountable for adhering to safe policies outside of school?

Does the family know that when they took a trip out of the country or to another state with a high burden that families need to isolate?

Milstone: Most kids are getting sick outside of school and bringing it into school. Kids coming to school sick this year is going to really create a much bigger burden on the school systems, if kids are coming in sick and spreading COVID or other respiratory viruses.

Khan: Another question, I guess there’s the adults that they deal with in school, which is teachers. Is it OK for parents to ask if their teachers are vaccinated?

Carnethon: The questions asking whether teachers are vaccinated. Those are probably questions best directed at the school and what the school policies are regarding vaccination. The rules may differ by state about whether you can ask somebody directly about their vaccination status.

Khan: Thank you guys so much for sharing your your thoughts. I really appreciate it. And this has been really interesting. I hope our our parents get some some much needed information and maybe a little bit of peace of mind from it. So thank you all for watching.

Please let us know if you have any more questions. Feel free to send me an email amina.khan@latimes.com. You can find me on Twitter @aminawrite. That’s my name plus “write.”

Thanks again. And stay safe out there.