Doctor’s Notes: How to Protect Children as the Coronavirus Spreads

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In the past month, our nation has seen the unprecedented spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The intensifying news coverage about the outbreak has been overwhelming for parents and frightening to children who are old enough to search the news or happen to hear what their parents are watching. In recent days, most travel has been halted, schools have been closed, sporting events, restaurants and amusement parks have been shut down. 

Ilan Shapiro

As a pediatrician and a father, I can tell you that children are able to sense fear among caregivers. I encourage parents to have age-appropriate conversations with their children to understand what they’ve heard, answer their questions and provide comfort.   

With schools closed, children are spending more time at home and have more access to an overwhelming amount of information about the current spread of COVID-19. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents and others who work closely with children to filter information and talk about it in a way that children can understand.

These tips can help:

  • Simple reassurance.  Remind children that researchers and doctors are learning as much as they can—as quickly as they can—about the virus and are taking steps to keep everyone safe.
  • Give them control. It’s also a great time to remind your children of what they can do to help—washing their hands often, coughing into a tissue or their sleeves, and getting enough sleep.
  • Watch for signs of anxiety. Children may not have the words to express their worry, but you may see signs of it. They may get cranky, become clingier, have trouble sleeping, or seem distracted. Keep the reassurance going and try to stick to your normal routines.
  • Monitor their media.  Keep young children away from frightening images they may see on TV, social media, computers and other sources.  For older children, talk together about what they are hearing on the news and correct any misinformation or rumors they may have heard.

Since news broke of the outbreak spreading to California, parents in my clinic have asked daily about the impact this could have on their children. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), children don’t seem to be at higher risk for getting COVID-19 at this time. Children who have been affected have shown mild symptoms of the virus, such as a runny nose, cough, sore throat, fatigue and fever. However, the spread of the virus can have detrimental effects on parents and grandparents with compromised immune systems. 

At this time, there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, but there are CDC recommended guidelines to protect your family’s health and prevent the spread of illness. 

  • Talk to your children about hand hygiene, ask them to wash their hands before they eat, after they use the bathroom, come inside from outdoor play or touch something dirty like garbage. It’s important to wash with soap and water for 20 seconds, which equates to singing the happy birthday song twice. 
  • When water and soap aren’t available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Remind them to cover their cough and sneeze into their elbow.
  • Maintain distance from others who are sick. 
  • If your child is sick, keep them away from others at home to prevent the spread of illness. 
  • Once a day, disinfect high traffic and touch spots in your home such as tables, desks, doorknobs, light switches, refrigerator handle, remotes, phones and other devices. 
  • Everyone should avoid touching their face. 
  • If you suspect your child may have COVID-19 symptoms, call your physician before visiting an office. Many medical offices have special protocols in place to prevent the spread of illness. 

During a time when information is rapidly evolving about the virus, the most important thing we can do for our families is to stay informed, listen to our children, validate their feelings and provide comfort. We’re all in this together and solidarity will get us through this pandemic. 

Dr. Ilan Shapiro writes the Doctor’s Notes column for the California Health Report. He is a pediatrician with AltaMed Health Services, the nation’s largest federally qualified community health center, and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He practices medicine in East Los Angeles.

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