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Kids and COVID-19: A look at Alaska’s stats heading into the school year

The decision to issue a mask mandate for school districts rests in the hands of local school...
The decision to issue a mask mandate for school districts rests in the hands of local school boards.(WMTV)
Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 7:47 PM AKDT|Updated: Aug. 13, 2021 at 5:03 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Many Alaska school-aged children are back in school now or headed back in the next couple of weeks. The Anchorage and Juneau School Districts are requiring masking for students, staff and visitors in schools, while other districts are taking approaches that range from fully optional to requiring visitors to be masked.

Meanwhile, national headlines focus on the rapid spread of the delta variant of COVID-19, and the overflowing of some pediatric hospitals — which counters the notion that children aren’t affected by COVID-19.

While children are not as susceptible to COVID-19 as adults and people with underlying conditions, children in Alaska and across the country do get sick, and some get very sick. The picture of infections here in Alaska isn’t quite the same as what headlines are showing is happening elsewhere.

Alaska COVID-19 infections in kids

Through July of this year, Alaska has recorded 12,699 cases of COVID-19 in children under 18, according to data provided by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Of those children, 33 were hospitalized, representing 0.25% of the pediatric cases overall, and none have died.

Compared to the 1,748 COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state in that time period, children represented 1.9% of the state’s hospitalizations.

As the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus spreads, the state’s average age of COVID-positive cases is trending down, with a larger proportion of patients being children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is hitting children harder according to Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist for Alaska.

McLaughlin said that while a higher proportion of cases in Alaska are in children than before, the fact that children under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination and that young people are generally less vaccinated than older people are primary factors.

“Older adults are more likely to be vaccinated, whereas younger adults and children are less vaccinated,” McLaughlin said in a virtual conference with members of the media. “That’s why the average age of cases is going down, because we’ve got more susceptible people in those younger age cohorts,” he continued.

In the first months of the pandemic, when schools statewide were shut down to in-person learning in response to the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, children represented a small portion of Alaska’s reported COVID-19 cases, according to the data from the health department. In March of 2020, there were only five pediatric cases in the state, representing just 3% of the state’s cases.

April and May each saw 16 cases, and as Alaska entered summer, cases in both children and adults began to increase — there were 258 pediatric cases in July of 2020 (out of 2,035 total cases). Cases hit a peak gross number in November, along with the rest of the state, with 2,689 children reported with COVID-19, which was 15% of cases at that time.

Since January of 2021 — after vaccines were first made available to older Alaskans in December — children have represented 20-25% of COVID-19 cases each month. That’s now approximately on par with 2020 census data that pegs Alaskans ages 0-17 as 25% of Alaska’s total population.

While the numbers show that Alaska children aren’t at an alarmingly high risk of hospitalization from COVID-19, the impacts on families can be hard.

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children

In January, 6-year-old Cameron Dye of Eagle River was hospitalized with MIS-C, Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a rare but serious complication in children who’ve been infected with COVID-19. He spent 10 days in the ICU.

MIS-C is one of the severe health consequences of COVID-19 for children. A state bulletin on the condition published in March said scientists hypothesize that it shows up as a result of post-viral hyperimmune response.

At that point, the state of Alaska had identified eight children that met the criteria for MIS-C. Four of the children were four years or younger, three were between 5 and 10 years old, and one was between 11 and 20. As of Thursday, the state had seen 12 cases, according to a spokesperson for DHSS.

All eight children were hospitalized -- five to the intensive care unit, due to complications like cardiac dysfunction, shock, coronary artery dilation, or an aneurism. Two were intubated. Six of the children had been exposed to someone with COVID-19 within four weeks of their diagnosis of MIS-C.

In Cameron Dye’s case, he had a fever of 104.5 degrees, and a rash spread from his ankles up his entire body. After urgent care treatment for strep throat and scarlet fever, he was admitted to the ICU where he had congestive heart failure and fluid in his lungs. When we spoke with the family in January, a couple weeks after he was released, Cameron was still struggling to walk.

“It was literally the worst experience that we have gone through in our entire lives. Like most adults won’t ever go through what Cameron went through,” his father, Heath Dye, said. “I know it was horrible for him, but being on the side of it as a parent and watching him go through it was awful. It was the worst thing that we’ve ever experienced.”

Vaccine rates among school-aged children

Children age 12 and up are currently eligible to be vaccinated under the Emergency Use Authorization of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, but younger children will have to wait a few more months as trials are completed for children down to age 5.

Dr. Coleman Cutchins, a pharmacist with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, says it could be as soon as November, or into early 2022 before Pfizer’s Emergency Use Authorization for kids 5 and up comes through.

State and federal officials have been encouraging vaccination before children go back to school, to protect themselves, their friends, families, and school staff. Dr. Mishelle Nace, a Fairbanks pediatrician, uses a rain jacket analogy for children and families. She compares the COVID-19 virus to the rain. The vaccine is like a rain jacket, but if you have a thunderstorm of virus rather than a sprinkle, you use an umbrella, which Nace equates to a mask. And thirdly, social distancing — the rain boots of the equation.

“So those are some of the three most important things you can do but the most important thing you can do is have your rain jacket on which is your vaccination,” Nace said during a health information session aimed at educators.

Statewide, by the end of July, about 33% of Alaska’s population aged 12-18 were considered fully vaccinated, including being two weeks beyond their second shot. The statistics by borough vary widely though.

According to data provided by the health department, as of Aug. 9 the most vaccinated region for people aged 12-18 is the Aleutians East Borough, where 73% of that age range have one dose, and 70% are fully vaccinated. The lowest rate of vaccination is in the Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, which contains the communities of Delta Junction, Tok, Northway and Deltana.

For the state’s population centers, Anchorage has 34% of people aged 12-18 fully vaccinated. The Mat-Su is at 19%, the only other borough or census area in the state below 20% for that age group. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is at 20%, and Juneau has the best urban rate of vaccination at 59%.

Alaska’s districts vary in response

The Anchorage School District will require students, staff and visitors to be masked while indoors, a move that’s prompted outcry from some parents and Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson. On Aug. 10, the Juneau School District Board of Education voted to follow suit and that district is requiring masks for all people in its buildings.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District adjusted its COVID-19 mitigation plan Thursday, requiring all visitors and volunteers to wear a face covering indoors during the school day. The district “highly recommends” all students and staff to wear a face covering while indoors.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and Fairbanks North Star Borough School District are taking the optional approach to masking.

A U.S. Department of Transportation mandate requires students and drivers to wear masks while on school buses. The mitigation plans for the school districts in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula specifically require students to be masked while on buses. The guidance for Juneau schools does not mention transportation and the Mat-Su Borough School District’s guidance states that “In (the) low risk operational zone, masks are optional for students, drivers, attendants, and monitors.”

While requiring students to wear masks has become a flashpoint in political spheres and among parents, the state’s health officials say keeping kids attending school in person is the end goal.

“We know that kids do better in school and with in-person learning,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said Thursday at a media availability. “While we are excited to have kids in school we also know that we have a highly contagious virus that can spread and we have tools in place to be able to minimize that.”

Zink says the public health team has been working with school superintendents to utilize the tools available to keep COVID-19 cases low so kids can be in school, not quarantined at home. Those tools include masks, social distancing, vaccines, and other measures.

According to the CDC guidelines, fully masked children do not need to quarantine if exposed between 3 and 6 feet to a COVID-19 case in a classroom where universal masking is in place. If universal masking is not in place, a child within 6 feet of a positive case would have to quarantine out of the classroom.

“We’re still learning a lot about this virus, we continue to see surges, particularly with the delta variant,” Zink said. “We’re at a time where we can’t have all our kids vaccinated. Masking is in schools, it’s not something that will necessarily be there forever. We are encouraging people to look at the CDC guidance, particularly when we have a group of the population that does not have the opportunity to protect themselves with a vaccine.”

Correction: This article has been updated to delete a sentence that stated the Alaska Native Medical Center had reported one COVID-19 pediatric ICU patient was on a ventilator. That was reported by a representative during an Anchorage EOC COVID-19 update on Thursday. A separate ANMC representative told Alaska’s News Source on Friday that that information was incorrectly reported in the EOC update.

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