COVID cases plunge among school staff, but data show kids remain vulnerable

May 04, 2021
Children sitting at table in school wearing masks.
Children do their schoolwork while wearing masks. iStock

Pediatric infectious disease specialist and COVID number cruncher Allison Eckard, M.D., said COVID-19 vaccines have had a huge impact among Charleston County School District employees. She’s working with the district to keep people as safe as possible during the pandemic.

“In January, there were 220 staff members who tested positive for COVID. In February, there were 112. In March, there were 71 and in April, it dropped to just 32.”

Dr. Allison Eckard 
Dr. Allison Eckard

That’s an 85% decrease in four months, thanks in part to the district’s decision to work with MUSC Health on mass vaccination events for employees. But Eckard, who leads the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases in the College of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, said this is no time for parents to let their guard down.

“There is a perception that kids cannot get sick from this and that because the adults can now be vaccinated that we don't need to do anything more in terms of risk mitigation. It's just not true.”

The case numbers for kids are down in the district, thanks to all of the vaccinated staff. Students 16 and up can now get vaccinated, too — and kids as young as 12 may become eligible next week. But children in Charleston County schools are still testing positive for COVID-19.

“There were 366 students in January, 349 in February, 234 in March and 190 in April. That’s not insignificant,” Eckard said. Those numbers just refer to students attending classes in person, not virtual students whose COVID cases would be unrelated to going to school.

While most children infected with COVID have mild symptoms or don’t get sick at all, some get severely ill. More than 15,000 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 300 have died, according to the latest update from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Eckard encouraged parents and schools to stick with pandemic precautions for now. “With approximately 30 days of class till the end of the school year, people just need to maintain what they're doing until the summer.”

That includes keeping kids masked in school, a measure some parents say is unnecessary and possibly even harmful. Some of the anti-mask criticism is based on a published report that speculated on potential harm from masks. That report has been retracted for being misleading and because the author falsely said he was affiliated with Stanford University at the time he sent it in for publication.

Still, Eckard empathized with frustrated parents. “People think that there is harm in children wearing masks. And I understand people feel very passionate about it, and they truly believe that it is causing harm. But we look at science and we do not see anything other than very minimal, mild side effects such as rash or worsening acne. We just do not see harm.”

She addressed three specific concerns that some parents have raised. Can masks cause shortness of breath? What about nosebleeds? And cavities?

First, Eckard said, there’s no evidence that cloth or surgical masks, apart from N95s, cause shortness of breath. “I understand that masks are hot. They can be uncomfortable. And there is a perception that they can cause trouble breathing, but the studies just don't support it.”

Second, she said, masks are unlikely to cause nosebleeds in most children. “Lots of school aged kids have nosebleeds, and those kids might have had nosebleeds whether or not they were wearing masks.”

Finally, after being asked if masks can cause cavities, she checked in with the chair of the Department of Dentistry at MUSC. “He said mechanistically, this makes no sense.” What might be happening, Eckard said, is that kids missed checkups and dental cleanings due to the pandemic, causing tooth trouble later.

She encouraged families to base their decisions on the advice of expert sources, not speculation or cherry-picked information. “I've been trained for decades to look at the validity of studies and whether they make sense scientifically, and whether the argument is valid from a medical standpoint, and it's hard for a lay person to come in and then try to understand this. I think a lot of times people are trying to mislead the public because they have a hidden agenda.”

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