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The Delta variant: What parents need to know as children head back to school

As children across the country prepare to head back to school in the fall, concerns are rising about the Delta variant of COVID-19 and how to keep children safe from contracting it. Dr. Jim Versalovic, Texas Children’s Pathologist-in-Chief and Interim Pediatrician-in-Chief, answers some of the most commonly asked questions from parents.  

Is the Delta variant more contagious?

The Delta variant is the most contagious variant to date. We know that it can spread rapidly, and that's obviously a major concern for children under 12 who can’t be vaccinated yet. It's also a concern for the many adolescents that are still in the process of getting vaccinated.

What are the symptoms?

The Delta variant is presenting itself a bit differently in children and adolescents. We are seeing more upper respiratory congestion, congestive features and less prominence of loss of taste and smell, at least initially. Also, similar symptoms that have been apparent throughout the pandemic continue to be the case in children and adolescents, like fever, fatigue, and a variety of upper respiratory symptoms. Any child who has symptoms consistent with an upper respiratory tract infection should be evaluated for COVID-19.

Do I need to get my child vaccinated?

It's impossible to overemphasize the importance of vaccination. We know these vaccines are effective at preventing severe COVID-19 disease and they continue to work against the variants. We need to continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated as soon as possible, especially with the rapidly spreading Delta variant.

As students head back to school, how can parents keep their children safe from COVID-19?

It's critically important for parents of children 12 years of age and above to get those adolescents vaccinated as soon as possible.

Of course, masking, distancing, and sanitizing – the behaviors we learned in 2020 to keep us safe – must continue to be practiced. That means parents need to have conversations about these safe hygiene and behavioral practices with their children in anticipation of the school year, especially parents with children under 12 who can’t be vaccinated yet.

Remember that any symptomatic child should stay home. We want to keep all the other children safe, and prevent the spread of this infection as much as possible.

When do you anticipate the COVID-19 vaccine will be available for children younger than 12?

Texas Children's is one of several elite children's hospitals who have been selected as centers for the pediatric vaccine trials nationally and globally. We’re partnering with Pfizer and Moderna to bring the mRNA vaccines for COVID 19 to children younger than 12 years of age as soon as possible.

The timeline is difficult to predict. Our initial goal to have data compiled for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was sometime in September. However, the FDA just recently requested greater numbers of children be enrolled in these studies at centers across the country. We expect that request will extend the length of the trials, but hopefully by just a few weeks.

At this point, we remain committed to the fall of 2021. Before the end of the calendar year, our first priority is to have vaccines available for children 5 to 11 years of age. We hope to see vaccines available for children under 5 in late 2021 or early 2022.

Are you seeing a rise in any other illnesses outside of COVID-19?

It's important to keep in mind that we have seen a tremendous amount of RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus. RSV is a well-known cause of respiratory tract infections that can be very serious and could lead to hospitalization, especially for young children with infectious diseases such as bronchiolitis.

We have to keep in mind there are other respiratory viruses that are circulating and may cause infections. And although influenza has been a relatively minor story in 2021, we are certainly keeping an eye on the Southern Hemisphere and Australia to help us predict what might be in store in the fall in the winter.

It remains very important to take a child who is sick with symptoms compatible with the respiratory tract infection to their pediatrician and get testing as soon as possible. The tests that we offer at Texas Children’s can certainly enable us to quickly diagnose COVID-19, as well as other respiratory viral infections.

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