As back-to-school season approaches, many Canadian parents are concerned by reports of unprecedented cases of COVID-19 among children and teens – as well as an increase in hospitalizations – in parts of the US
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the majority of these diseases are caused by the delta variant, which has been dubbed “highly contagious.”
Although the delta variable is on the rise in Canada as well, pediatric infectious disease specialists and public health experts say we’re not in the same boat as hotspots in the United States — and that there are measures we can take to avoid getting there.
What is happening in the United States?
“Right now, things are really bad in the southern and southeastern parts of the United States,” said Dr. David Kimberlin, of Children’s Hospital of Alabama and professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“We have more pediatric cases, more pediatric hospital admissions, and more pediatric critical illness cases than ever before during this pandemic,” he said.
“What we are seeing is much worse than it was even in the dark days of January and February…during the winter wave.”
Watch | Children severely affected by the high rates of spread of the Corona virus in the United States:
One reason for this is the predominance of the delta variant, which Kimberlin estimates at about 90 percent of the COVID-19 cases it sees now.
Another big reason, he said, is “poor vaccination rates” in COVID hotspots.
“You put a virus that’s highly contagious, highly contagious, highly contagious, highly contagious — represented by this delta variant in a population…a third vaccinated, you have a recipe for disaster,” Kimberlin said.
“We are experiencing that catastrophe now.”
According to the latest data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest COVID-19 case rates per 100,000 people are in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
What is happening to children and COVID-19 in Canada?
For now, experts say Canada is not seeing the increase in pediatric cases and hospitalizations seen in the southern United States. This includes one of the largest children’s hospitals in the country.
“SickKids have not seen any increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations or disease severity due to the delta variable,” a Toronto hospital spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. “Throughout the pandemic, we have been monitoring COVID-19 trends in other jurisdictions and continue to do so closely.”
Experts say one reason this has not happened is Canada’s high vaccination rate. According to the CBC’s Vaccine Tracking, 71 percent of the eligible population — currently anyone 12 years of age or older — has been fully vaccinated in Canada.
“It appears that vaccination in Canada is not so much a political issue as it is health – and we are fortunate for that,” said Dr. Jeff Pernica, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“We know that two doses of the available mRNA vaccines provide very good protection even against delta,” he said. “So I don’t necessarily think what happens in the United States will happen here.”
Does the delta variant make people sicker than other forms of the virus?
The short answer is that experts don’t yet know for sure.
“We know that everyone is at greater risk of developing delta disease,” said Dr. Laura Souve, chair of the Canadian Pediatric Infectious Diseases Committee and an infectious disease specialist at British Columbia Children’s Hospital.
“It is more transmissible than previous strains of COVID-19.”
But the question of delta’s “virulence” – meaning whether the disease it causes is more serious – remains unclear.
Many infectious disease specialists say that although there are more hospitalizations of children in the United States than before, this may be due to the fact that Delta is causing more infections overall. So the same percentage of patients as before may be seriously ill, but there is a much larger group of affected children and teens.
Are children under the age of 12 not at particular risk because they cannot be vaccinated?
Yes, experts say — but there are still things we can do to protect them.
The current fourth wave of COVID-19, including the delta variant, is largely infecting unvaccinated people, said Dr. Anna Banerjee, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
“The main unvaccinated population we have now in Canada are mostly children [who are] Below 12. That’s a huge concern for me.”
Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are Clinical trials are currently underway To determine if their vaccines are safe and effective for children under 12 years old. Banerjee hopes the results will be available in the coming months.
Meanwhile, experts say one of the most important things people can do to protect children from the delta variant is to receive the vaccination themselves.
“Protecting the adults around them with vaccination will help protect children who are too young to be vaccinated,” Sauvé said.
“This includes … children over the age of 12 – such as high school students and middle school students. But also parents, teachers, other health care workers and other education workers.”
In addition, Sauvé said, it is critical to keep up with other public health measures, such as wearing masks indoors, especially when community transmission is high.
Kimberlin said many people have dropped public health measures in hard-hit areas of the United States now.
“[We’ve] …we have to go back to the same kinds of things we don’t like — wearing masks and trying to get away from each other and doing the kinds of things we were so familiar with last winter and last year,” he said.
Is it still true that kids usually don’t get sick if they get COVID?
Yes, infectious disease specialists say. There is nothing to indicate that the delta variable has changed that.
“Of all the children who get COVID, the majority will probably have no symptoms at all,” Sophie said.
“Another large proportion will have, sort of, mild flu-like symptoms. They may also be fussy for a few days, they may have some fever, they may have some cough, and in most cases, this goes away fairly quickly.
“A very, very small percentage of children with COVID get sick enough with COVID to be admitted to hospital. But that’s a very small percentage.”
Should Canadian children go back to school this fall?
All of the Canadian infectious disease and public health experts interviewed by CBC News gave a resounding “yes”.
“It is really important that we do everything we can to get the kids back to school in person,” Sophie said.
“The effects of COVID on mental health and development have been the most profound effects of COVID on children, and we are seeing significant increases in treatment in mental health hospitals,” she said.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, medical officer of health for the Peel District of Ontario, agreed that returning to school is vital for children — while taking COVID-19 safety precautions.
“Overall, schools reflect the community transmission that is happening,” Luo said. “And we know that one of the best ways to tackle transmission in the community is to make sure everyone is vaccinated as much as possible.
“Additional measures being put in place in schools – crowding, screening, segregation, stealth – all of these will remain critical.”