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IOWA CITY — With the start of school just a week away for many Iowans, how can families protect school-aged children from COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses?
Young Iowans are expected to return to class in-person once again this month. But the highly contagious Delta variant spreading rapidly throughout the state has some parents wondering about their child’s risk.
To prevent serious illness, a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics pediatrician says parents and guardians should continue taking steps that have been recommended throughout the course of the pandemic — wear masks and practice social distancing.
But most important, anyone 12 and older should be vaccinated against COVID-19, said Dr. Hao Tran, UIHC pediatrician.
“First of all, I really recommend anyone who can get vaccinated for COVID-19 get vaccinated,” Tran said during a Facebook Live hosted by UIHC on Monday. “That is the most effective prevention or precaution against serious infection.”
She added, “Also vaccinating other members of the household will protect anyone who is unvaccinated.”
Children 12 and older can receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is widely available at UIHC, other health care facilities and area pharmacies.
Pfizer is conducting studies on its vaccine in children 5 to 11 years old and is expected to release that data by the end of September, Tran said. It’s anticipated the vaccine will receive authorization for use in that age group from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by the end of this year or early next year.
A child’s primary care provider is the best resource for parents who have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine for children, Tran said.
Breakthrough infections have been reported nationwide in fully vaccinated Americans, but Tran said data shows the vast majority are taking place in adults over the age of 65. Still, the vaccine has been effective in preventing serious illness and death in those individuals.
Masks for children 2 and older
For children unable to receive the vaccine, Tran recommended wear masks in public and social distancing when possible.
“I strongly recommend children over the age of 2 wear masks,” Tran said. “I’ve even had some younger children wear masks safely when parents teach them. So I recommend that they wear masks in public and indoor spaces.”
Tran also urged families to start discussing wearing masks with their children as they prepare to go back to school.
"I think if parents start talking to their children, letting them know wearing a mask will keep them healthy and the people around them healthy, this will help the transition,“ she said.
RSV cases on the rise
Masks also can prevent other respiratory illnesses, including the flu and RSV, a common but contagious virus that can cause severe infection in babies and small children. Nationwide, doctors have seen an alarming number of RSV cases among children this summer — a time when the virus typically wouldn’t be circulating widely.
In fact, Tran said she has never seen an RSV surge in August in her 20 years of practice.
“Our hospital is full now with RSV now, and even the ICUs,” she said.
RSV season typically occurs in the winter, usually between January and March.
“Because people were wearing masks so diligently during those months, as well as isolating more at home, we did not have RSV season” this past year, Tran said.
Recommendations to wear masks and social distance also apply for children who have underlying health conditions or otherwise could be at risk from a serious coronavirus infection. Tran also encouraged parents and guardians of these children to follow up with their primary care provider regularly.
Schedule back-to-school physicals
As students prepare to return to class this month, Tran said young Iowans should be sure to make time for their annual back-to-school physicals.
“Lots of families postponed or missed physicals last year because of COVID-19, so many kids are behind on their vaccinations,” she said. “I really encourage every family to bring their children into their health providers for annual physicals.”
Annual physicals also are a time doctors can assess a child’s physical and mental well-being. The past year has taken a toll on many children, and Tran said it’s important to address any challenges to a child’s social and emotional health that may be lingering.
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