By Lance Chilton
610,000+ deaths in the US and counting . 4,400 in New Mexico. Very few of those deaths are children. Only 43 states are counting COVID cases and deaths by age; in those states, there have now been more than 4,000,000 child cases and “only” 0.01%, or about 400, have died. Those 400 deaths are more than three times the average annual toll of child deaths from influenza, and children have suffered greatly as direct and indirect results of the pandemic.
In New Mexico, more than 38,000 children have tested positive for the virus, amounting to 18.2% of the 218,000 positive cases in our state. Both numbers would undoubtedly be much greater had state government, under Michelle Lujan Grisham’s strong and science-based lead, not taken a strong stand to protect our people of all ages.
To some, the changing policies advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and by our friends in Santa Fe have added to the frustration we’ve all had through the pandemic’s first 500 days (July 24 marked 500 days since the Governor declared a health emergency.) Masks on/masks off, school all virtual/school in person, 6 feet social distancing/3 feet (for kids), restaurants shut/restaurants open–all of it has been based on the latest science, which has changed rapidly during the pandemic.
Of course, every child death is a tragedy, but there are lower-level tragedies every day in children’s lives due to this evil virus. A great many children have had to cope with deaths in their families, especially among their grandparents. Children nationally make up more than 2.3% of the people hospitalized with COVID, a proportion that’s increasing as adults become immunized (a luxury not available yet to children under age 12), and every hospitalization leaves long-lasting scars on a child’s psyche and sometimes his/her physical health as well.
There have been more than 4,000 cases of COVID-related multi-system inflammatory disease (MIS), virtually all of them in children. Many of these children have been hospitalized, often in intensive care units, with this unusual disorder. Fortunately, almost all recover.
Probably the most common COVID effect on children is emotional distress, with lockdowns increasing mental health disorders, intrafamily violence, and even suicide. “She’s suffered, she’s really suffered,” said a friend about her daughter, confined to her house for 500 days. Parents, of course, are stressed, too; their stress and their children’s stress interact and increase one another.
Hope is at hand, though. First, vaccines appear to be effective against all of the variants seen so far. At this point, only the Pfizer vaccine has been made available to children between 12 and 17 (and seems even more effective in that age group than in older teens and adults); studies are underway to look at that and at least four other vaccines in children as young as 6 months. Dr. Robert Frenck, infectious disease pediatrician and COVID researcher, has recorded an excellent summary of information on the current status of vaccines for children at vumedi.com.
To reach “herd immunity,” where there are enough people resistant to infection to make the pandemic die out, we’ll need to immunize kids. Though children are much less likely to get very sick from COVID than their grandparents, protecting them, their grandparents, and everyone else will require a large proportion of children to be immunized. Our state Department of Health, taking the lead from Governor Lujan Grisham, is watching the science carefully; New Mexico is already near the top of the charts in immunizing adults, and will probably lead the way to immunizing the children, too, when the recommendation to do so comes out–probably this fall or winter.