What’s safe for families to do—and not—during the coronavirus outbreak?
Coronavirus vigilance is all of our new reality. Schools are closing, football tournaments are cancelling and companies are allowing some working parents to telecommute.
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. Plus, keeping ourselves and our community safe and healthy seems to be everyone's top priority right now. The answer, say some experts, is social distancing. But how exactly should that work and what judgment calls should we make in order to keep our family and others safe while also living our day-to-day lives?
Here, Dr Christina Johns, senior medical advisor and member of the coronavirus response team for PM Paediatrics in Annapolis, Maryland, answers our biggest questions about parenting during the coronavirus outbreak:
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.
My kids' day care/school is still open. Should I send them?
Dr Johns: Consider individual risk vs. public health risk. By individual risk, I mean: If everybody is well at day care and school and there isn't documented coronavirus in the community—which isn't going to be for very much longer, I will say—then it is probably a safe thing to do. But what we do know is that this is a virus that's spreading pretty fast, and it's going to keep spreading. That's why they're closing schools. So, I think that it does make sense to avoid day care if possible.
I get it. There are working parents. This really is a struggle right now. I hope that organizations are going to be good to our mamas and daddies because we've kind of all got to pull together if we're going to really make an impact here with the quarantining. So, I am telling people that the better [decision] is to avoid all that stuff right now. Your risk will be lower. We know that's true. The risk will be lower if you avoid crowds and stuff like that. School, crowds, anywhere where there's more than, you know, 10 bodies in the same space.
Can we go to the playground?
Dr Johns: I think there are a couple tricky [aspects about playgrounds]. 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. I think that it makes sense to be in avoidance mode. This is a better time to play in the backyard.
What about letting my kid play with kids in the neighbourhood?
Dr Johns: I think that it's going to be impossible for us to have total social isolation for the next little bit of time. I would definitely be quite vigilant about finding out from people on the street: Does that child have fever? Has anyone been sick at home? Finding out a little bit more information there, more than you normally would, is the prudent thing to do.
What about restaurants, takeaways and drive-ins? Should we worry about who's been handling the food?
Dr Johns: 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.
And grocery carts… What if I need to take my kid to the store with me?
Dr Johns: 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.
But my kids suck their thumbs/bite their nails. What can I do?
Dr Johns: 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.
Can we ride the bus or take a taxi?
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.
Should we visit with grandparents?
Dr Johns: 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.
Kids get coughs and sniffles all the time! How can I keep an eye for signs of coronavirus in my child?
Dr Johns: 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.
What should I do if someone in my family shows signs of coronavirus?
Stay at home. Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. Use the 111 online coronavirus service to find out what to do.
We're all healthy and have travel plans. Should we go?
Dr Johns: International travel is not wise at this time. The problem isn't necessarily going somewhere but it is returning. Getting back can be tricky and difficult, and that's a mess people probably want to avoid at this point. If it's domestic travel, think of whether or not you're going to be out and about in a crowd of people. If that's the case, then you are just at an elevated risk.
It's not totally clear [when to reschedule travel for]. I'm guessing it will be at least two months before we even start to go there and think about it.
When will we be able to go back to a more normal daily routine?
Dr Johns: 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.
What else is important to know about coronavirus?
Dr Johns: 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. There 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.
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