What to Do If Your Child Is Exposed to COVID-19

Coronavirus cases are on the rise. Here are some tips and next steps to follow if your child is exposed to COVID-19.

About 5.3 million kids have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the week ending Sept. 9 saw a jump of 243,373 cases, reaching levels not seen since last winter.

The Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, shows kids represent 28.9 percent of reported weekly cases.

After declining in early summer, child cases have increased exponentially, adding nearly 500,000 cases in two weeks, the AAP says.

“As kids are going back to school in the places where there are no mask mandates or there are mask mandates and people are not adhering to them and they’re not doing the protective mitigation protocols, they are starting to see outbreaks in those situations. We knew that was going to happen,” says Dr. Tina Tan, an expert in infectious diseases and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a pediatrician at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“(Coronvirus) takes advantage of people not protecting themselves. When you start to get a lot of individuals that may not be eligible for vaccinations in the same place and there’s a lot of disease in the community, this will lead to individuals being exposed and becoming infected,” she says.

And as the more contagious Delta variant is raging, that begs the question, with school back in session, packed sports stadiums and other events happening and the holidays looming, what happens if your child is exposed to someone with COVID-19?

Despite what some people might believe, COVID is a big problem for kids, Tan says, adding the number of hospitalizations of kids have increased.

“These kids can get severe respiratory distress, they can run high fevers, some of the kids can get issues with their lungs and heart, neurologic issues. We don’t see as many deaths, but kids can get very sick with COVID and require hospitalization and can have prolonged symptoms,” she says.

Exposure tips

The best advice: Keep sick kids at home and especially don’t send them to school.

If your child is exposed at school by a teacher, staff member or another student, at day care or in a gathering that includes more than immediate family, there are a few general precautions that parents can take to ensure that the spread is contained as much as possible. The Illinois Department of Health advises that a close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days before getting tested) until the time the patient is isolated.

In most cases, schools and day cares will require kids to quarantine for up to 14 days if they come in contact with a positive person, with testing conducted five to seven days after exposure, Tan says.

In some instances, if the exposed child has no symptoms, tests negative and is wearing the mask properly, they may be allowed to return to school. A positive test should keep the child home and away from others and pets 10 days starting from the day symptoms first appear and after going 24 hours without a fever.

If symptoms do develop and they continue to run high fevers or have problems breathing or other concerning symptoms, get them medically evaluated, Tan says. Start with your pediatrician but go straight to the Emergency Department for high fevers you can’t bring down, if they aren’t eating or drinking or can’t keep anything down because of vomiting or diarrhea or have severe abdominal pain, she says.

Then get them vaccinated when you are able. Ages 12 and older are now eligible, with ages 5-11 expected to be eligible for vaccinations in late November or December and kids 2-4 most likely in early 2022, she says. “This is the one way you are going to be able to protect them against getting severe COVID disease,” Tan says.

When it comes to playdates and indoor birthday parties, especially involving kids not yet eligible to be vaccinated, hold them outside as much as possible — and everyone should still wear a mask, she says.

“The more time people spend indoors with a lot of other individuals, the higher the risk there’s going to be that someone is going to transmit the COVID,” she says.

Testing facts

Dr. Anita Chandra-Puri, a Chicago pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says she believes the Polymerase Chain Reaction test — or PCR test — is the best for everybody, including children, due to its accuracy. A PCR roughly translates to taking a trace amount of DNA and amplifying it so that the virus’s genetic material can be detected. The way this test is administered is with a mucus sample through the nose or throat.

“No test is 100% accurate so you have to correlate the test result with the symptoms that the child has,” Chandra-Puri says. “But the PCR test is as good of a test as we have. The rapid antigen testing that’s out there is not very accurate and has a lot of false negatives which can be a problem.”

The City of Chicago continues to recommend everyone eligible for the vaccine, those 12 and older, get it. For those unvaccinated, it suggests a few ideas to protect those around you from infection when a household member is sick:

  • Keep people at higher risk separated from anyone who is sick.
  • Have only one person in the household take care of the person who is sick.
  • Provide a separate bedroom and bathroom for the person who is sick, if possible.
  • If you need to share a bedroom, separate the ill person’s bed.
  • If you need to share a bathroom, clean and disinfect the frequently touched surfaces in the bathroom after each use.
  • Maintain six feet between the person who is sick and other family or household members.
  • If you are sick, do not help prepare food. Also, eat separately from the family.
  • Wear a mask in public and around others.

What about MIS-C?

Some kids who get COVID-19 get the rare multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) to can hurt the lungs and other vital organs. Signs to watch for are persistent fever, belly pain, Kawasaki disease-like symptoms of conjunctivitis, red or swollen hands and feet, red, cracked lips, a rash and swollen glands, the AAP says.

Tan has been seeing MIS-C and says some of the kids are “very, very ill.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still studying why some kids get MIS-C after getting COVID and why some don’t. It recommends parents do everything they can to avoid their kids and families from getting COVID.

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