UAMS Online Panel with Leading Medical Experts Sheds Light on Youth and COVID-19

By Linda Haymes

Panelists ranged from frontline doctors to health care leaders. They included Jennifer Dillaha, M.D., chief medical officer and medical director for immunizations with the Arkansas Department of Health; Robert H. Hopkins Jr., M.D., professor of Internal Medicine and pediatrics and chief of the UAMS Division of General Internal Medicine; Joel Tumlison, M.D., Arkansas Department of Health; Jared Beavers, M.D., a pediatrician at Arkansas Children’s; and Veronica Raney, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Arkansas Children’s.

The nearly 300 attendees, who included parents, students and educators from around the state, submitted about 100 questions in advance and during the 90-minute evening presentation moderated by Franklin Gray Jr., M.D. a hospitalist with UAMS, and Baylee Field, a program coordinator with IDHI.

The questions included ones about vaccinating and quarantining young people, the benefits of masking, ongoing concerns, and how the stress of the pandemic is affecting our children.

Dillaha began by explaining COVID-19.

“It’s a new illness to humans and consequently, humans don’t have anything in their immune systems to fight it with. It’s a respiratory virus that infects the lungs, and it can range from a mild illness with almost no symptoms to severe illness and death. It can also cause long-term effects.”

Since last spring, COVID-19 has evolved from the initial Alpha strain to the most current delta variant, which began in India and can infect two to three times more of the people who are exposed to it, she said. There are now breakthrough cases in which fully vaccinated people are infected.

“We are now seeing more children being infected with the delta variant than we did with the previous ones,” said Hopkins.

He said that it is very important that children with respiratory illnesses be tested for COVID, noting that not all children will run a high fever and other symptoms may vary.

“It’s difficult for doctors to determine what type of respiratory infection a child may have, and unless you have a test, you can’t tell whether it’s COVID.”

It is also important for everyone who is 6 months old and older to be vaccinated for the flu this year, added Beavers.

Panelists also explained why those who developed antibodies to COVID after contracting it still needed to be vaccinated.

With the arrival of the delta variant, it’s unknown what type of COVID or what level of protection those who’ve already have the virus may have.

“Getting vaccinated gives you better protection,” Hopkins said, adding that of the current cases of children ages 8 to 18 with COVID-19, only 2.8% of them were fully vaccinated.

Just as with adults, children who are obese or have weakened immune systems, chronic respiratory issues or diabetes are most at risk for COVID, Dillaha said.

“But children who are perfectly healthy can also contract COVID.”

Masking is very important, said Hopkins.

“We are dealing with a respiratory virus, and you need to think of this in term so layers of protection,” he said. Wearing a mask offers one layer, while other people around you wearing a mask provides another layer. Vaccines and frequent handwashing offer more.

“We need to do all the things we can do to reduce the transmission from one person to another,” Hopkins said.

Dillaha reminded attendees that the virus is spread through droplets emitted when breathing, coughing, singing, laughing or cheering, and masks stop the droplets from traveling.

“The most important thing is to have a mask that is comfortable, fits well from the bridge of the nose to the tip of the chin and is replaced with a new one often or washed regularly if it’s cloth,” Hopkins said.

Dillaha explained that the recommendations keep changing because the virus is an evolving one.

“We have to be flexible and change our recommendations based on the changing science,” she said.

Be careful where you get your information from, Hopkins cautioned. “Don’t get it from Facebook or other social media. If you really want to know the science, get it from the scientists and from sources such as the Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control or UAMS.”

Hopkins said he expects the FDA to approve a temporary emergency use of a vaccine for younger children in the coming weeks or months.

“When it does, my younger children will be in the line,” he said.

The rare risk of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine causing inflammation of the heart in adolescent boys is not a reason to remain unvaccinated, Dillaha said, adding that the inflammation was short-lived for the few young people who experienced it, and it responded to treatment with Tylenol.

“What people don’t understand is that COVID itself can lead to inflammation of the heart. COVID-19 is four times more likely than the vaccine to cause heart inflammation,” she said.

In a rapid-fire question session, the panel shared that the vaccines do not alter DNA, give someone COVID, are not created in any way from aborted fetuses, will not make someone magnetic, or affect fertility or menstrual cycles.

Hopkins stressed the importance of keeping children who are sick at home until they are better.

“If your child is sick, they are likely to pass it on to someone else,” he said.

When asked why returning to class hasn’t been delayed or virtual learning extended, Raney said studies have shown that the benefits of in-class learning outweigh fractured or remote learning and a nationwide survey of teachers revealed that those who attended virtually are three to six months behind in learning.

She added that a lot of children struggle with learning and a lot of families struggle with nutrition and benefit from being in school.

Raney confirmed that depression and suicide has increased because of the pandemic.

“Stress has increased for both the parents and the children, and children take their cues from their parents,” she said.

“Suicide attempts for girls aged 12 to 17 has increased by 50% during a 30-day period between February and March 2021 compared to the same period in 2019,” said Raney.

Those who choose to homeschool their children should make sure they have a routine and structure to their day, a space free of distraction in which to work and the opportunity to spend some time with their peers.

“Warning signs of depression in children include changes in their eating and sleeping habits or if there are changes to their personality, especially outbursts or talking about hurting themselves or hinting at it.”

“The best thing to do is to talk to them about it,” she said.

Help for those who are struggling can be found at UAMS’s AR-Connect at 800-482-9921 and the Department of Health’s Arkansas Lifeline Call Center at 800-273-8255.

Raney said some ways to combat the challenges of the ongoing pandemic include eating well, getting enough exercise and rest, and trying to maintain social interaction via Facetime or outside gatherings with social distancing.

“Parents are usually taking care of everyone else, but it’s really important that they also take care of themselves.”

When it comes to getting back to normal, that is no longer possible, Dillaha said.

“We need to think in terms of a new normal,” she said, suggesting finding new routines and ways of enjoying being with one another.

“Think of yourself as a part of a society, and how you can contribute to it,” Hopkins said. “That includes washing hands, wearing a mask, getting vaccinated if you can, and social distancing.”

“And give yourself and others some grace because this is a tough time for everyone,” Raney said.