As a virologist at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, Dr. Megan Freeman has been busy during this complicated back-to-school season. Beyond practicing medicine and doing research, her work in recent weeks has also included plenty of public speaking.
So much information about COVID-19 is circulating, and not all of it is accurate. “So my job during the course of this pandemic is to provide reliable, evidence-based information,” she says. “I like to cover the basics behind the virus without all of the hype.”
Those basics are familiar by now, but it’s vital that we understand them accurately, Dr. Freeman says. We need to know how the virus actually gets transmitted and know what we can do to prevent transmission, which “includes wearing masks, staying six feet apart and lots of hand hygiene.”
On Sept. 2, Dr. Freeman covered this ground in depth during an online seminar hosted by the Tomorrow campaign called “So Now What? Helping Parents & Caregivers Navigate a School Year Like No Other.” (Click below for a recording of the seminar, which is the first in a month-long series of information sessions supporting families as their children begin the new school year.)
Freeman began studying coronaviruses in 2010. During the seminar, she spoke about the coronaviruses we’ve all dealt with for many years — even if we never knew to call them “coronaviruses” before. She mentioned the four that can cause what we describe as the “common cold,” as well as the three that have made headlines in recent years by causing what we call SARS, MERS and now COVID-19.
She then shared an evidence-based guide to help families avoid and cope with COVID-19 as successfully as possible. Among the details that parents may find most useful:
- Can children spread the novel coronavirus to other people? “Yes, they surely can,” says Dr. Freeman. Solid data shows that children can spread the virus even if they show few or no symptoms.
- A very small number of children with COVID-19 have developed something called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS-C). But while this rare syndrome makes children quite ill, “we actually have really good treatment strategies for patients who come to the hospital with MIS-C.”
- Most often, the virus is spread through tiny droplets that leave a person’s mouth or nose when they cough or sneeze (or even when they are speaking or singing). So masks are the very best defense against catching the novel coronavirus and they are the best way to keep yourself from spreading it to others. Statistics show that face shields can help keep the virus from getting into people’s eyes, but they don’t seem to keep it from reaching people’s noses and mouths. Data from an outbreak at a restaurant in Sweden showed that all waiters wearing face shields contracted the virus while all those wearing masks did not.
- Very few medical conditions preclude wearing a mask, Dr. Freeman says. In fact, she encourages those with chronic medical conditions to wear masks, given that they may be especially vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
- For students with medical conditions or those living with high-risk family members, it can be helpful to talk with a pediatrician about whether it’s safe to attend school and what specific steps the family might take.
- Keeping track of daily cases in the local community can help a family make good decisions. In Allegheny County, community cases can be tracked here. And accurate national/international data can be found here “It’s important to know what’s going on in your community, because that affects what you should do or not do,” she says.
As families return to school, Dr. Freeman points out that “your approach to a 4-year-old won’t be the same as to a 16-year-old.”
With the youngest kids, the goal is “normalizing that this is what we do and why we do it,” she says. Making things fun — finding an Elsa mask for a young child who loves “Frozen,” for example — can help. Middle-grade students may be the ones most likely to balk at new rules like wearing masks during school. But hopefully parents can find age-appropriate ways to help all students understand the risks and why it’s vital to take steps to keep everyone safe.
Watch the full COVID-19 and Kids’ Health: An evidence-based practical guide & FAQ webinar here.
And register here for upcoming So Now What? seminars, happening every Wednesday evening in September, covering topics including social-emotional wellness, safe and successful student use of online technology from home and more.