Despite some hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the head of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax says he's still far more concerned about the impact of the flu and other common viruses on children.
Dr. Andrew Lynk, who is also the chief and chair of the pediatrics department at Dalhousie University, said the IWK and regional hospitals have seen "very few" children admitted due to COVID-19, even in the weeks since the Omicron variant hit Nova Scotia.
During his recent shifts at the children's hospital in Halifax, he said there were two children, one of whom was very young, admitted for a few days.
"The ones that we have admitted have been mild and brief for the most part. It's not to say that a child with certain high-risk factors couldn't get quite sick from it, but we're certainly not seeing that," Lynk said.
He said some children contracted COVID-19 in the community and screened positive while visiting the hospital for unrelated appointments, but there has been no spread.
A check-in Thursday with colleagues from other parts of the country confirmed they're seeing the same, Lynk said. Most cases of Omicron can be managed at home with the usual treatments for a cold, cough or flu.
"There is a slight uptick [in hospitalizations], but it's still pretty minimal in terms of in-patients and very minimal in terms of anybody with significant illness," he said.
By comparison, he said 100 to 200 children — including infants — are admitted every year after becoming sick with RSV, a highly contagious respiratory virus that is particularly dangerous to babies. It's most common in the winter months and can lead to bronchiolitis, a potentially serious lung infection.
On top of those cases, some of which end up in intensive care, Lynk said there are about 70 children admitted to the IWK with influenza.
"About 10 of those will regularly end up in the ICU and occasionally we lose a child from the flu every year. We're not seeing anything like that with COVID," he said. "Compared to RSV and flu in children, COVID is certainly very mild."
Supports schools reopening
Lynk is among the eight physicians who are part of the province's pediatric advisory group. It issued an open letter Thursday in support of the return to in-class learning. It said though Omicron may spread in schools, "community and family gatherings are more likely to result in widespread infection."
Citing supports for learning difficulties and mental health, as well as social supports such as meal programs, Lynk said "school is the best place for kids."
He echoed what Public Health officials have repeated through the pandemic — that it's a matter of balancing and minimizing risk.
"Probably the most dangerous part of going to school for most kids in the morning is getting on the bus or in a car, and we accept that risk every day," he said.
"We appreciate that the Omicron variant is more transmissible, more contagious, and we are going to see spreads in school just like we would with RSV or influenza. But again, we're hoping with good hygiene and masks that that will be kept to a minimum."
Advice for parents
To minimize some of the risks associated with COVID-19, Lynk said in addition to vaccinations, parents can ensure their child has a well-fitting, three-layer cloth or medical mask and can teach kids the importance of handwashing before eating.
He said it's important to keep social circles small, in line with public health guidance, and to opt for outdoor playtime with one or two friends as opposed to connecting inside.
"If you're keeping a little bit of distance and outdoors, having a good time, I think that's pretty safe and I would encourage it for the sunshine, the fresh air and the mental health benefits of doing that, as well," he said.
He also recommends preparing in case someone in the home contracts COVID-19. The IWK is offering guidance for families that includes having pre-made meals on hand, medical supplies and a plan for child care in the event parents become very ill.
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