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Delta Variant Drives Up Number of Hospitalized Children In Kansas City Ahead Of New School Year

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A wave of local school districts has adopted mask-wearing policies ahead of students returning to campus.

Students across the Kansas City area are gearing up to return to the classroom, but local health officials are worried schools could turn into "hot boxes for infection."

The Kansas City area is seeing a jump in the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19 as local school districts gear up to return to campus this month.

Children’s Mercy Hospital hit a record number of 22 COVID patients on Monday, exceeding highs seen last winter. That number had dropped to 11 patients by Tuesday, but doctors warned that doesn’t mean cases are trending downward yet.

Dr. Angela Myers, the hospital’s division director of pediatric infectious diseases, said they’re also seeing a spike in patients admitted with childhood illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, a form of the common cold.

That virus is usually seen only in winter, but the hospital currently has 41 children admitted with RSV.

“We saw zero RSV for well over a year, because kids were at home, they were quarantined or they were masking when they were out,” Myers said. “Now, we're seeing a surge in viruses when people aren't being masked and people are coming together in a population of children who don't have any pre-existing immunity.”

Local counties are seeing more COVID infections in the younger population as the delta variant continues to surge across the area. Myers said the rise was attributable to the highly-contagious nature of the variant and children under 12 not being eligible for vaccinations.

In an effort to protect the area’s younger children, many local school districts have adopted mask-wearing policies ahead of students’ return to campus. Myers said those policy changes will help keep kids in the classroom.

“We had kids in and out of school all throughout the school year last year. We know that the best place for kids to be is in school all day every day and the best way to keep them there is to protect them from getting sick in the first place,” Myers said.

School districts vote to mask up

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, adopted a mask order last week, but excluded public and private schools and the cities of Edwardsville and Bonner Springs. So far, Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools and the Piper School District are the only county education systems that are requiring masks.

Juliann Van Liew, director of the Wyandotte County Health Department, said she’s concerned that county school districts without mandates could become “hot boxes” for infection.

“We can't think of schools as being in a silo. They are part of the network and the ecosystems of our communities, and we have to be serious about the fact that what happens there has repercussions for the rest of us,” Van Liew said at the the University of Kansas Health System’s morning briefing on Tuesday.

Dr. Rex Archer, former director of the Kansas City Health Department, said he anticipates “a real problem” in the fall if schools do not mandate universal mask wearing. He said at the briefing that many school systems were being pressured by a small number of “ill-informed parents” not to implement mask mandates.

Archer said the mandate will help keep schools open, which he said is important for children who struggle with virtual learning.

“Do I like wearing a mask? No, but you do it to protect others and sometimes to protect yourself. The big message here is our kids deserve to have a year where they can really get in and learn, and we need to do everything we can to help them,” Archer said.

Social media myths

Archer said he blamed social media for spreading “myths” and contributing to misinformation around masking and vaccinations. He recommended that people seek out trusted scientific sources such as the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Van Liew said one of the biggest myths she hears is that COVID doesn’t affect kids, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 349 children under the age of 17 had died from COVID-19 as of Aug. 4.

Myers said that while kids are less likely to come down with severe infections than adults, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

“We had 22 kids in the hospital yesterday with COVID infection; we have 11 today. Clearly, kids do get sick with COVID. Clearly they get sick enough to require hospitalization,” Myers said.

Beyond masking, Myers recommended that parents perform daily screenings of their children for symptoms before sending them off to school. She also recommended that parents “cocoon” around their children by ensuring that all of the people around them are vaccinated.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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