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How will COVID delta variant affect kids? Pediatricians urge masks in schools as cases increase
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Gainesville Middle School students wear masks while walking to their next class Friday, Feb. 5, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

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As COVID-19 cases surge across Hall County, local pediatricians say more children in their clinics are testing positive for the virus. 

“We’re definitely starting to see the numbers go up,” said Dr. Saima Hussain, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic. “We’re getting cases from day cares. Schools are just starting to enroll, so we haven't seen as many school-aged children yet come in positive. But numbers overall in the state are going up, and I know that we're going to start seeing more cases.” 

In the past month, coronavirus cases among children have skyrocketed across Georgia, likely driven by the more contagious delta variant, which now accounts for more than 80% of new cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

Hussain said the delta variant is about 50% more contagious, and infected people typically carry 1,000 times the viral load of the original coronavirus strain.

The delta variant does not appear to cause more severe illness in children, local pediatricians say, but they worry that schools with mask-optional policies could become hubs of transmission and prolong the pandemic. 

Child cases have also exploded in recent weeks across the state. In mid-July, 75 children tested positive. By Aug. 3, the number of cases had ballooned to more than 450, according to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health — a sixfold increase. Additional COVID-19 data is available at gainesvilletimes.com/coronavirus.

Some parents may be worried about how the delta variant could affect their child, whether it increases their risk of infection or the severity of illness, especially in children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine. 

The DPH does not “have any specific data on the delta variant in kids,” according to public information officer Natasha Young. 

School officials for both Gainesville and Hall County have cited the mental health of students as a primary reason for not requiring masks this year, and while health experts said they understand those concerns and strongly advocate that children return to schools, they are adamant that “masks should be required at school,” Hussain said. 

Both the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend everyone over the age of 2, even if they have been vaccinated, wear masks in schools. 

“It’s really important for kids to be in school,” said Hussain. “I think that we can all agree on the fact it's important for their mental health and just as important for their learning.”

“It’s also extremely important with schools being open that we try to follow the mitigating strategies that worked last year, and those mitigating strategies included masking at schools,” she said. 

Some parents contend that children don’t actually wear their masks properly and so there is little point in requiring them, but some pediatricians have pushed back on that argument. 

“Most children have actually done fine with the masking, because they really follow the leads of the parents and the adults that are important to them,” said Dr. Megan Farley, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic. “The masking, it's not perfect, but it's certainly going to decrease your risk of passing it along to somebody and decrease your risk of getting it.”

In addition to masking, vaccinations are the most powerful tool parents wield for protecting their children from the virus, health experts say. The vaccination rate in Hall County is only 36%, according to DPH data. DPH breaks down vaccination data by age, showing that 8.9% of those ages 10 to 14 are vaccinated, though only those 12 and older can receive the vaccine. For those 15 to 19, 30% are vaccinated.

“The more quickly we can cut down the spread — by masking and other mitigation methods — and the more quickly we can vaccinate all those who are eligible, then the more quickly we can stop this whole disease from controlling our lives,” Farley said. “And so I think if we sort of step it up and try to get everything under control, the more quickly we will be able to return to a more normal life, which is what everybody wants.”

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