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Pediatricians Say Lack Of School Mask Mandates Could Lead To More COVID-19 Deaths In Kids

Scott Sonner

With the extremely infectious delta variant ripping through Pennsylvania, the question policy makers face is, “What is an acceptable number of preventable pediatric deaths?”

“Zero is the acceptable amount of preventable pediatric deaths,” said Dr. Todd Wolynn, head of Kids Plus Pediatrics. The practice has three southwest Pennsylvania locations which serves some 20,000 patients.

Wolynn is one of many pediatricians concerned about how delta will impact kids, especially after school starts. Unlike adults, children under 12 are not yet approved for the vaccine.

The Wolf administration has decided it will leave the decision on masking up to individual school districts, a move Wolynn said is “political pandering” and “a complete disregard of children’s health.”

But while Kids Plus has yet to see an increase in COVID-19 cases, Wolynn expects one in the coming weeks and months.

He is likely right.

At this week's press briefing, the head of Allegheny County’s health department said there were 110 COVID-19 cases among kids under 12 in July. August's count is already at 188, which represents a nearly 60% increase even though the month is less than half over.

While hospitalization numbers are not as bad as they were in January, UPMC’s Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh says there has been a recent uptick in COVID-19 patients. In fact, this is already a particularly busy August for the hospital due to respiratory viruses other than COVID, such as parainfluenza virus, adenoviruses, and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.

“[These] made a big surge that we missed this past winter because everybody was masked and staying away from each other,” said UPMC’s Dr. Andrew Nowalk, who specializes in the modeling of pediatric infectious diseases.

Like Wolynn, Nowalk predicts there will be more pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations as delta continues to spread through western Pennsylvania, especially after school starts. That's why he favors masking at schools.

Data is inconclusive as to whether the variant is more deadly. But because it spreads so quickly and efficiently, more people will be infected. A small portion of these cases will cause severe illness among kids.

Some might see this framing of the delta variant’s impact as hysterical or overblown.

Allegheny County’s relatively high adult vaccination rate is currently providing unvaccinated kids with some level of protection via herd immunity, thereby avoiding the nightmare scenarios that pediatric hospitals are facing in hotspots like Louisiana and Texas. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that less than 550 kids under 18 have died fromCOVID. At least two of these children lived in Allegheny County.

Still, Nowalk notes these numbers are much higher than even the most severe flu season, making Covid deadly enough to kids for it be a “public health crisis.” Like influenza, there is no discernible pattern as to which kids will get seriously ill from Covid, and who will be fine.

“We don't have a ton of really super effective tools to fight against it. We don't have a great antibiotic for COVID,” said Nowalk.

This is why he says that adults should get vaccinated, because it protects those who don’t yet have that option.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.