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As More Kids Get COVID, St. Louis Doctors Encourage ‘Layers Of Protection’

Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School in Lemay. The south St. Louis County district was one of the first in the region to bring students back to classrooms last fall.
File photo / Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Children arrive at Hancock Place Elementary School in Lemay. As kids prepare to go back to school, doctors are encouraging families to think of how to keep their kids and themselves safe from the coronavirus.

Doctors in the St. Louis region are encouraging families to create what they call “protective bubbles” around school-age children as they head back to class.

Earlier in the pandemic, younger people who caught the virus were mostly asymptomatic. But now, more kids are testing positive and getting sick with the virus, local health officials said this week. In St. Louis County, one in five cases are in people under 18, according to county officials.

The more contagious delta variant has spread across the state, putting more kids and their families at risk of contracting the virus as the school year begins, said Dr. Sarah Gebauer, a family medicine physician and clinical epidemiologist in St. Louis.

“Those mutations made it so that children who were in previous parts of the pandemic not getting very sick or having asymptomatic infections, now they’re getting sick and in much higher numbers,” she said.

Federal officials haven’t yet approved a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12. That means those who can get a vaccine should to protect vulnerable kids, particularly as school starts, Gebauer said.

“We’ll have large numbers of unvaccinated, highly vulnerable individuals in small spaces, cooped up together for a long period of time, trying to do what’s most important, studying and learning,” she said. “[We need to] ensure that these children are surrounded by people who are fully vaccinated if they’re eligible.”

This week, there are 25 children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the region’s hospitals, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

“You could go to any of our children’s hospitals across the state of Missouri and find lots of kids that are in hospitals, on oxygen, because of the coronavirus,” said Dr. Kristin Sohl, president of the Missouri chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “This delta variant, or new version, of the virus is absolutely affecting kids in a way we did not see in the past.”

Doctors say kids and teens are still being hospitalized at much lower rates than adults with COVID, but kids can spread the virus to others, particularly those who are unvaccinated.

Even given the new risks, it’s important for kids to get back to in-person school, Sohl said. To keep them healthy and in school, families should create as many barriers between them and the virus as they can, by avoiding large crowds, wearing masks outside the home and, most especially, getting vaccinated.

“Our little kiddos have no meaningful way to protect themselves other than the layers of protection we can put around them as adults,” Sohl said.

It’s likely the federal government will approve a COVID-19 vaccine for young children by late this year or early next year, she said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.