Parents worried about the Omicron wave of COVID-19 had a chance to ask Ottawa doctors their pressing questions on Thursday night — including concerns about the severity of recently-noted cases among babies and other young patients.
A panel of staff at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) hosted the hour-long virtual town hall one day after CHEO and a hospital in Hamilton issued a public service announcement stating that six infants between the two sites had been hospitalized for COVID-19 infections since mid-December, despite the previous rarity of infant admissions.
"What we're seeing with Omicron is not really different from what we saw with other variants of COVID-19," said panel member Dr. Nisha Thampi, a pediatric infectious disease physician and the medical director of infection prevention and control at CHEO.
"Kids have been generally dealing really well with the infection."
WATCH | The entire Q&A can be viewed below:
Questions were submitted ahead of time by email and well over 900 people tuned into the virtual session at its peak.
While noting the recent rise in kids' admissions, Thampi said the experience of doctors — at hospitals in communities that are a few weeks ahead in their Omicron surge — suggests the uptick is merely a reflection of the variant's high transmissibility.
"Most of the kids who are in our hospital with a positive COVID test are not admitted because of a COVID-related illness," Thampi said, adding most children admitted because of COVID-19 have had short stays.
Wednesday's public service announcement stated that the mothers of the babies admitted to CHEO with COVID were not vaccinated.
"Given that babies and moms have relatively weaker immune systems just during the pregnancy and the period after delivery, we're encouraging anyone who is pregnant to get their COVID vaccine or their booster," Thampi said.
'What does COVID look like in babies?'
CHEO president and CEO Alex Munter, who moderated the town hall, said the hospital received a lot of questions about what COVID-19 looks like in infected babies. Staff were also asked at what point a child should be brought to the emergency room.
"When we see a fever in a baby who's very young, like certainly under a month, we recommend that they come to the hospital because babies don't really tell us where their infection is and what their infection is. It could be bacterial or it could be due to a bacteria or to the virus," Thampi said.
The same goes for kids under three months who look unwell.
There is no typical picture of an infected child, Thampi stressed.
"We've seen kids who have had some mild breathing difficulties or who've come in with just fever," Thampi said.
"The same things that we would have told parents to look for before COVID are the same symptoms that should make you think about coming to the hospital to seek treatment."
Limit contacts for infants, wear well-fitted mask
COVID-19 vaccines are not currently available to children under the age of five (except for some high-risk, immunocompromised patients), so Thampi was asked if babies under 12 months are at greater risk of contracting the disease.
She said it's not clear if infants have a specific increased risk to COVID-19 or if more cases are being seeing now.
"The easiest answer is yes, please do limit your contact at the present time," Thampi said of infants in general, adding that essential visitors helping care for mothers and babies should wear a well-fitted mask.
"Maybe hold off on the gatherings to introduce baby to the community and ensure that every eligible member of the household is vaccinated," she added.
Emily Johnston and her partner Bobak Toufighi, who've been remaining largely isolated since the premature birth of their son a year and a half ago, said they were grateful to see CHEO recognize the anxiety and confusion parents are experiencing amid the Omicron surge.
Dr. Allison Kennedy, a child psychologist and clinical lead for crisis services at CHEO, addressed that theme at the outset of Thursday's session.
"I think we were all expecting to be through the worst of it," she said of the pandemic. "And here comes Omicron. So tough times, for sure."