Dr. Steven Kernie, a Spokane native, has been on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, and now he is a go-to expert for insights on the latest manifestation of the disease – an inflammatory response in children that has contributed to at least three deaths in New York.
Kernie, who graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1984 and maintains close ties to the Inland Northwest, is vice chairman of the pediatrics department at Columbia University and chief of the intensive care unit at New York-Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital – one of the largest pediatric ICUs in the city.
Over the past few days, Kernie has been fielding phone calls from national news organizations about the latest set of symptoms associated with COVID-19 – a toxic shock-like reaction similar to Kawasaki disease, which mainly affects children younger than 5.
Kawasaki disease causes the immune system to go into overdrive with symptoms including fever, pink eye, rashes and diarrhea. In severe cases it can inflame blood vessels and cause deadly aneurysms.
The coronavirus-linked illness is being called “pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with COVID-19.” Kernie stressed that while there are similarities between the two diseases, there appear to be differences in how the coronavirus condition affects the heart.
“There’s been this notion that children don’t get COVID disease unless they have serious underlying medical issues,” he said. “That still seems to be true, but they do get this post-infectious hyper-inflammation that can be life-threatening.”
So far, the inflammatory syndrome has turned up in a tiny fraction of COVID-19 patients. On Saturday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state had counted 73 cases of the inflammatory syndrome and three children had died from it.
“We don’t know how many kids will ultimately be affected,” Kernie said. “Right now, it appears that it’s a very rare condition associated with primary COVID infection, but we have no idea how many children are vulnerable since not many have been tested. The good news is that they seem to respond with standard treatment, so if it’s recognized, we expect they will recover.”
As it has for many Americans, the pandemic has drastically altered daily life for Kernie.
“I can tell you the day it started,” he said. “We admitted our first pediatric patient to the ICU on March 14, and that’s when we kind of figured out this was going to be a big deal.”
As the city became overwhelmed by the outbreak, the hospital system closed down its several other pediatric facilities, Kernie said.
“We centralized them all at our hospital, and then we still had some capacity, so we started admitting adult patients,” he said. “We have taken care of about 30 of them now and really turned this into an adult ICU.”
Kernie said only 10 adult patients remained in the children’s hospital on Thursday. He said the hospital had counted only one death associated with COVID-19 – a child who had serious underlying medical issues.
“It’s getting better all over the city, slowly, but there’s still a lot of very sick patients in the hospitals,” he said.
COVID-19 has taken Kernie away from his main area of research involving childhood brain injuries. His lab, located across the street from the children’s hospital, has remained dark because of social distancing measures, but he hopes to return sometime in June.
“My interest has always been in acquired brain injuries, like traumatic brain injury and strokes and hypoxic brain injuries,” Kernie said.
That research is one of the main reasons he went to Columbia University after 18 years at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“Our interest has always been how the brain recovers after injuries,” he said. “We focus on a very specific population of cells within the hippocampus. There’s stem cells there that are constantly regenerating, and we’ve shown that those are required for recovery after certain kinds of brain injury. We work on the mechanisms that underlie that recovery.”
After studying human biology at Stanford University, Kernie earned his medical degree from the University of Washington in 1992. He then settled in Dallas with his wife, Pam – a native Texan whom he’d met at Stanford – and completed an internship, a residency and a fellowship at UT Southwestern before joining the faculty in 1999.
In 2011, the Kernies moved to New York with their three children, who are now 18, 22 and 25 years old. The family visits Spokane once a year to see Kernie’s mother and his older brother. The visit also includes a stay with a childhood friend and his family who have a place on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
“My kids are very attached to the area. They bug me all the time about getting a lake place there,” Kernie said.
“How cool would it be to have an apartment in New York and a place in Coeur d’Alene, and just kind of split time between the two? That’s kind of my dream.”