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Idaho doctors address surge in COVID infections among children

More than 1,700 children tested positive last week across the state. Pediatricians say they're also concerned about the pandemic's impact on mental health.

BOISE, Idaho — The number of children and teens in Idaho hospitals for COVID-19 at the end of this summer was five times higher compared to what hospitals were seeing in June, according to data presented Wednesday afternoon in a briefing with doctors representing Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke's and Primary Health.

The number of hospitalized infants and children younger than five years old was ten times higher during the last week of August compared to June.

"That's a scary figure," said Dr. David Peterman, CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, who's also a pediatrician.

The specific impact of COVID-19 on newborn children is unclear, but Dr. Nik Shalygin of Mountain States Neonatology said he has definitely seen an increase in babies born to COVID-positive mothers, and "as of late, we're seeing an increase of babies who are born prematurely solely due to the mothers, the adults, having complications due to their COVID disease, and those babies, prior to being born, were showing no signs of distress we would usually expect when we deliver or admit premature babies."

Even with crisis standards of care authorized in Idaho, the doctors say their hospitals and clinics are able to take care of kids as they always have, but it's been challenging, said Dr. Jennifer King, the pediatric hospitalist director for Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center.

"The biggest effect that I think our team, our unit, has seen has been a ripple effect from constraints that have been put on the system, the hospital, as it's been flooded with patients, mainly adult patients," King said. "Some of the staffing shortage has been from nurses resigning due to burnout. We've seen that on both the labor and delivery side, the postpartum side, and the pediatric unit. In addition, every time a nurse gets exposed at work or through their own personal life and they call out, that puts a strain on the system, too."

Concerns also include other respiratory illnesses typically associated with the fall and winter months, like influenza as well as RSV, which hit early this year.

However, King said, the toll isn't merely physical.

"The other thing we've seen an uptick in has been suicide attempts during the pandemic. We're very concerned about the mental health effects that this pandemic is having on kids," she said. "Kids are having to deal with loss and grief at earlier ages, times, in their lives when they shouldn't have to because they're losing family members who were not vaccinated."

King also mentioned missed days of school as a concern.

During the last week of August, 200,000 children across the U.S. were diagnosed with COVID-19. Peterman said an analysis of 520 counties indicated pediatric COVID-19 cases were significantly higher in counties without mask mandates in schools.

When asked to speak on the decisions of many Idaho school boards in light of what doctors are seeing in hospitals, Dr. Kenny Bramwell, medical director of St. Luke's Children's Hospital, said he wasn't "coming up with any nice words" to describe the way school boards have responded.

"They just don't seem to understand the importance of masks in public settings. Masks, to me, are a rather trivial thing for me to wear in the course of my day as an emergency doctor, and they've been shown as recently as last Friday in materials from the CDC to change the prevalence of COVID in a school by at least one third," Bramwell said. "The challenge is that I think we have, because of inactivity from our president and our governor, we have left the public health decisions up to school boards, which they really have no interest in doing."

Bramwell said some school boards do realize the importance of masks in reducing the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but some boards have chosen to ignore the question, "perhaps out of self-preservation from the angry mobs at their meetings."

In his presentation, Peterman also said unvaccinated teens were hospitalized at ten times the rate of vaccinated teens.

The panelists agree: everyone who's eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine needs to get it.

Peterman said in some cases, parents and teens disagree about whether to get vaccinated or not, or parents who've been vaccinated believe their teens have the right to not get vaccinated. However, there are many families who absolutely refuse based on what Peterman calls misinformation.

"These are parents who - I've taken care of their kids for 15 years - I have given them advice they've taken on influenza vaccine, multiple other childhood vaccines, and sometimes antibiotics and whatnot, and they're very comfortable with that advice," Peterman said. "Yet with so much misinformation on this particular vaccine, they're not willing to listen."

Peterman added that confronting parents who may be misinformed isn't going to do any good. Rather, he said he asks what information could he provide that would help, and he offers to listen.

Idaho Health and Welfare officials said in a Tuesday briefing that pediatric cases have hit a record high, now making up about 20 percent of all COVID-19 cases statewide. More than 1,700 children tested positive last week, deputy state epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Turner said, doubling the number of child COVID cases in mid-August. 

Right now, Saint Alphonsus and other hospitals in Southwest Idaho and East Oregon are able to keep taking care of patients of all ages, despite the strain on the system.

Bramwell said St. Luke's has expanded hours in general pediatric clinics and opened up new high-acuity clinics in the Children's Pavilion. Those clinics are an alternative to the emergency department for patients who are too sick for the typical urgent care clinic.

Those under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against the virus. Just 28% of children from 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, with 35% of 16- and 17-year-olds fully vaccinated.

"The best way we have of protecting our children, our vulnerable population, is to vaccinate everyone around them and create a cocoon around them," King said. "It's our best chance of keeping those kids safe until the vaccine is safe for everyone."

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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