Five tips for parents as omicron spreads and pediatric hospitalizations rise

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(NEW YORK) — As the highly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads across the country, children are being impacted, too.

Last week, nearly 200,000 children in the U.S. tested positive for COVID-19, up by about 50% since the beginning of December, according to new data from American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

And federal data shows more than 2,100 children are currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 — up by approximately 800 pediatric patients compared to just a month ago.

The increasing numbers are colliding with the holidays as well as cold and flu season and the upcoming return to school from the holiday break.

Amid the uncertainty of omicron, here are five tips for parents from two experts, Dr. Allison Messina, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Dr. Sarah Ash Combs, an emergency medicine physician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

1. Take omicron seriously, especially if your child is not yet vaccinated.

Severe illness due to COVID-19, including the omicron variant, remains “uncommon” among children, according to the AAP and CHA. But experts say young people are not immune from the virus, or from severe illness and death.

“I personally have seen many previously healthy children get really taken out by COVID,” said Ash Combs. “I think as a parent, you just want to do anything you can to prevent putting your kid in that situation, and unfortunately, there isn’t a strong predictor of is your kid going to be the unlucky one who gets harder hit by getting this strain.”

With omicron, experts say the rise in case numbers and hospitalizations among children isn’t because the variant attacks children differently, but more likely due to the fact that most children under age 18 are still not vaccinated.

In the U.S., less than a third of eligible children — ages 5 to 17 — have been fully vaccinated.

Messina said she worries that researchers do not know yet if omicron itself causes milder symptoms or if adults who are contracting the variant are experiencing milder systems because they are vaccinated against COVID-19 or have already had the virus.

“What I worry about is children are relatively unvaccinated, if you look at them as a group, and they may have less of a chance of having and recovering from coronavirus in the past,” she said. “It makes me worry a little bit that children by and large don’t have the baseline immunity that adults do.”

Messina continued, “That’s why when we’re treating omicron in children, we want to treat it seriously because we don’t know if it’s less serious or not.”

Both Messina and Ash Combs said the No. 1 thing parents can do to protect their children is to get them vaccinated and boosted if they are eligible and to make sure that all eligible adults who interact with their kids are vaccinated and boosted, too.

2. Go back to masking in public, especially indoors.

While omicron spreads and COVID-19 cases continue to increase, both Messina and Ash Combs said families should go back to mask-wearing when in public, especially in indoor spaces like grocery stores.

“I would tell parents, yes, go back to those previous measures you used to take, like masking,” said Ash Combs. “I would advocate for sending children to school both vaccinated and in masks because any multi-level protection you can get is better.”

Following coronavirus safety guidelines like hand washing and social distancing is also important for families during this surge, according to Ash Combs.

3. When in doubt, assume COVID-19.

Many of the symptoms of omicron — including sore throat, runny nose, fever and cough — closely mimic those of the flu and common cold.

As a result, according to both experts, the only way to truly diagnose your child is to get them tested for COVID-19.

“To be absolutely safe, especially if it’s a household exposure, or you’re just not sure, getting tested is key,” said Ash Combs. “You want to either get that at a facility or try and get your hands on an at home test if you can, and I recognize that’s hard to do … but if you can, as a parent, it’s good to have those on hand.”

If a parent is not sure whether their child has COVID-19 or a cold, for example, Ash Combs said to assume it’s COVID and follow CDC guidelines to isolate.

“You want to act as that could be a positive COVID case,” she said. “You certainly don’t want to go out and about if you or your child is feeling unwell, you don’t know the status of a test and you still have active symptoms.”

4. Slow down on large gatherings with other families.

If your family is gathering with people outside of your household, the best protection is to make sure that everyone your family will be in contact with is vaccinated, according to Messina, who added that families should also think about slowing down their social calendars.

“In a time like this with omicron when we’re seeing so many cases right now and we really probably haven’t hit our peak yet, this is the time to pay more attention to limiting play dates and limiting large gatherings, at least until case numbers start to drop,” she said. “Be a little bit more cautious.”

Whether or not a parent decides to let their child go on a play date or gather with friends can also depend on their age, according to Ash Combs, who noted that children who are older and vaccinated can have more flexibility to be together.

Like so much of what has happened during the pandemic, Ash Combs said that circumstances can change and parents should adjust accordingly.

“Every situation is going to change so reassess day by day, week by week,” she said. “See where you are at.”

5. Keep up good hand hygiene, but don’t overly stress about washing shared toys, door handles.

The early days of the pandemic saw people sanitizing everything that kids especially were in contact with, but experts say now that we know more about the virus, parents do not need to stress to that level.

“We know that COVID doesn’t seem to be super well transmitted by what we call fomites, those inanimate objects that you touch,” said Ash Combs. “I don’t think we need to freak out the way we did originally in quarantine with our groceries and our mail.”

Experts say it’s always a good idea to teach children good hand hygiene, including washing hands frequently for at least 20 seconds.

According to Ash Combs, one age group parents should be concerned about are young toddlers and infants who may put toys in their mouths, which is why she recommends being more cautious about gatherings of kids that young.

“I’d say play dates from multiple households of little kids who just love to share their saliva and their sneezes and coughs, that’s probably not a good idea,” she said. “But really for the bigger kids who are able to use a tissue and keep their hands to themselves, they don’t need to get super worried if they’re sharing a book or another object.”

ABC News’ Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

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