By Dr. Noreen Womack
In March of 2020, when the whole world was living in fear of the unknown virus, I remember being relieved that at least the disease affected adults more than children. With the delta variant, that relief is gone. We’re seeing an increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases – with no end in sight unless more Idahoans get vaccinated.
More than 1 in 10 positive cases in Idaho are now children. From January to July of this year, pediatric admissions at St. Luke’s only averaged five per month. In August it increased to 12, and to 16 in September. The children needing hospitalization are disproportionately those already struggling with medical issues – chronic illnesses like cancer, congenital heart disease, seizure disorders, immune deficiencies and Down syndrome. One is a 2-week-old infant born more than three months early. In the U.S., 460 children have died from COVID-19, compared with the 690,000-plus total. But since when has the death of even one child been OK when we have the ability to prevent it?
The effect on children goes deeper than just getting the virus. By now, many have heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs include a range of chronic stressors, such as experiencing abuse during childhood, and exposure is now considered a top public health concern. At least five of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. are considered a direct consequence of high ACE scores. As pandemic-related stress is seeping into the very fabric of our lives, COVID-19 is being called “the new ACE.”
I watched as an 11-year-old cried, not because he tested positive for COVID, but because he was terrified he would give it to his grandmother who was raising him. He said, “I was trying really hard not to get it until I was old enough to get the vaccine, but I’m bullied when I wear a mask.” I saw a 15-month-old struggle with chronic ear infections and difficulty breathing at night because his surgery was postponed to care for the hundreds of unvaccinated COVID patients flooding the hospitals. A 15-year-old was denied transfer to a psychiatric facility after testing positive for COVID.
As the age of COVID-related deaths gets younger, more young children are experiencing the loss of a parent. A St. Luke’s provider lost her life to COVID last year, leaving behind her husband and young children. When I hear someone refuse to wear a mask, I think of her and her children without their mother. I think about my own health, both physical and mental, and my fellow health care workers.
Eighteen months into the pandemic we’re all very tired. Is fatigue the reason we have stopped fighting the virus and started fighting among ourselves instead? The good news is we now have vaccines to stem the tide of unnecessary death, suffering and straining of our health care system. The crux of the matter is that we need to vaccinate as a community. An individual’s decision to not take preventive measures does not end with that individual. If enough individuals think “I’ll just get natural immunity,” those individuals’ decision collectively jeopardize thousands of children’s ability to attend in-person school and postpone pediatric critical care and procedures.
We know two things for sure: COVID-19 vaccines can and do save lives, and the COVID-19 virus can and does end lives. For 20 years, I have watched many Idahoans do many things not for themselves, but for the good of their families. Let COVID vaccination be one of those things: Do it for the kids.
Dr. Noreen Womack is a pediatrician at St Luke’s in the Treasure Valley. She has served as the early childhood champion for the Idaho chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics for two decades, with special interest in adverse childhood experiences, resilience, and early literacy.
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