What’s safe for families to do – and not – during the coronavirus outbreak?

March 25, 2020

Coronavirus vigilance is all of our new reality. Schools are closed, social distancing is our new way of life and many parents are working from home.

Most parents are reassured to hear that kids who get coronavirus tend to experience it as a milder illness. But that's not necessarily a risk we want to take with our loved ones' health. Keeping ourselves and our community safe and healthy has to be everyone's top priority. Here, Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical advisor and member of the coronavirus response team for PM Pediatrics in Annapolis, Maryland, answers our biggest questions about parenting during the coronavirus outbreak.

Care.com: Is it true that kids aren't as seriously affected as adults by coronavirus?

Dr. Johns: I think it's really important to note that this is the early innings of this virus, so this is really preliminary stuff, but I think we can be reassured by much of the data that has come out of Asia: 

  • The most reassuring data has been out of South Korea, just because they probably had the most robust testing that showed a mortality rate of 0 for people less than 20 years old. 

  • China had [less robust testing] numbers but was similar, so I think that that's an early reassuring sign, that kids seem to have a milder illness. 

Now, does that mean that there haven't been any kids diagnosed with this that haven't needed ICU-level care? No, that's not true. We know that some kids, like four or five or so in South Korea, survived but did need ICU-level care. But the overwhelming majority of early data says that kids may do a pretty good job at spreading the infection but, in terms of actually getting sick from it, are in better stead. 

C: Can we go to the playground?

J: Surfaces can be [germy] at playgrounds, and most of the kids that go to playgrounds are not really at an age where they're great at keeping their hands to themselves. I don't feel confident about social distancing by toddlers at playgrounds. I'm being tongue-in-cheek and kind of funny there, but there's some truth. So really I think that it makes sense to be in avoidance mode. This is a better time to play in the backyard.

C: What about restaurants, takeout and drive-thrus — should we worry about who's been handling the food?

J: The strict answer to that is yes. Any time there is an infection, where the contact is through droplets — if somebody sneezes over food and that kind of stuff — that increases your risk. Everyone is going to have to make their own personal judgement.

C: Oh god, grocery carts… what if I need to take my kid to the store with me?

J: Wash your hands before you go. Bring wipes with you. Be very careful about what we've been hearing again and again: Do not touch your nose and face while you're there. Be very intentional about that, and then also wash your hands immediately upon return home. And wash for real. That means you've got to wash your kid's hands too. Sing "Happy Birthday" or the ABCs twice, so you're doing it for at least 20 seconds. All that stuff.

C: But my kid sucks their thumb/bites their nails. What can I do?

J: Increase the handwashing. Increase the frequency. Some kids will tolerate gloves or socks over their hands while they're sleeping. You can try that. Depending on the age of kid, some will tolerate that more than others. 

Unfortunately, I keep saying we are hearing the same old boring stuff in the media because that's the truth. That's really the only thing that is truly working right now.

C: Should we visit with grandparents?

J: Right now is not the time to go and visit grandparents. What we do know about the data that's been pretty consistent is that people over 65 is the population that is more at risk. And so I do recommend right now that we stay away from that group. Let's give them every single leg up that we can.

C: Kids get coughs and sniffles all the time! How can I keep an eye for signs of coronavirus in my child?

J: Pay a little bit more attention. A lot of times when kids get a fever, they act more fatigued than usual. Put that together with a cough or sneezing. Those are the things that you really want to keep your eye on the most, and if we can be very sensible about that and be more in tune to their breathing pattern and whether or not they're tired, that may predict if they've got a fever.

Read more: I’m a parent with COVID-19 symptoms: What should I do?

C: When will we be able to go back to a more normal daily routine?

J: That's a tough one. I think we will know the answer to the question after we have more data on infection surveillance in the areas where we live. Once we have that information and we see the infection transmission rate … trend in a more downward direction, then we will start to feel more comfortable that we're wrapping our heads around the spread.

C: What else is important to know about coronavirus?

J: I want to remind people that there's no treatment for this. It's a virus, so there's no treatment.

And also — when testing does become available — it's not appropriate for everyone to get tested. The people who need to get tested are the people in respiratory distress and who are getting hospitalized. They are people who are immunocompromised, people who have weakened immune systems. Those kinds of people are the people who need to be tested. If you want to get tested because you just want to know [if you might have it], that doesn't make sense. But that's a hard message for a lot of people to hear. We all do want to know. I get that. But that's really the truth.

Note: In an effort to stay on top of a rapidly changing situation, the following Q&A recommendations have been updated to reflect current CDC guidelines, as of the date of this posting. 

C: Can we ride the bus, take a taxi or a Lyft/Uber if we really need to go somewhere?

Dr. Johns: We have to live our lives. That is the truth about this. But we can just be more intentional about it. And so, when we get into a taxi, keep your hands in your lap. Try to just be better. Is anybody going to be perfect about it? No, but can we be better about it? Yes. And I think if we can have that mentality, that's really the most level-headed approach right now.

Additionally, follow CDC prevention guidelines after using any form of public transportation. 

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

C: What should I do if someone in my family shows signs of coronavirus?

According to the CDC, you should watch for symptoms, which may appear 2-14 days after exposure (based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses). These symptoms include, but are not limited to: 

  • Fever

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath

Get medical attention immediately if you develop any of the following emergency warning signs for COVID-19: 

  • Trouble breathing

  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest

  • New confusion or inability to arouse

  • Bluish lips or face

Please consult your medical provider for any other symptoms that are severe or concerning.

C: We're all healthy and have travel plans. Should we go?

For travel within the United States, the CDC is advising travelers to consider a number of questions when deciding on risks and safety, including: 

  • Are you or is someone you live with are at higher risk for severe disease?

  • Am I spreading COVID-19 where I live when I return from travel?

  • Is there community spread of the disease where you’re going?

  • Can you take time off after traveling in case you're told to stay home for 14 days for self-monitoring or if you get sick with COVID-19?

For all destinations, CDC provides guidance through 2019 (COVID-19) travel health notices, which are designated as Level 1, 2 or 3, depending on the situation in that destination. 

Here are the CDC’s current COVID-19 travel recommendations by country.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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