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Local pediatricians urge vaccinations as COVID-19 cases soar

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With schools on the verge of reopening amid "skyrocketing" COVID-19 cases, a panel of local pediatricians and physicians convened via Zoom on Aug. 10 to answer questions from the public about the pandemic, vaccinations, and youth, in a discussion hosted by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

GET THE SHOTS In an Aug. 10 back-to-school webinar, a panel of local pediatricians encouraged SLO County families to get the COVID-19 vaccine (pictured). - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • File Photo Courtesy Of SLO County Public Health
  • GET THE SHOTS In an Aug. 10 back-to-school webinar, a panel of local pediatricians encouraged SLO County families to get the COVID-19 vaccine (pictured).

"I think we protect the kids by making sure the adults around them are vaccinated," said Dr. René Bravo, a SLO-based pediatrician. "I think, hands-down, that's a solid answer that's achievable. ... We know that is working."

In the one-hour discussion, the four physicians on the panel tackled questions ranging from the safety of vaccines, to the social-emotional impact of the pandemic on children, to the "astonishing" recent rise in cases of COVID-19 in local youth, and how that's not something to take lightly.

"A year ago, we were seeing two to three positive COVID cases per week. Over the last two weeks, we're now seeing two or three positive COVID cases in children per day," said Dr. Laura Hutchison, an Atascadero pediatrician. "The increase is phenomenal and surprising—scary as school starts to open."

Between Aug. 3 and 10, SLO County added 603 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths, of residents in their 50s. Cases increased 56 percent over the week prior and hospitalizations more than tripled, from eight to 26, with five in the ICU as of Aug. 10. Officials say the overwhelming majority of new cases are in unvaccinated residents.

"It's dazzling how fast this Delta variant has picked up," said Dr. Brian Roberts, a local urgent care physician.

While COVID-19 is not nearly as fatal to youth as it is to older adults, the doctors cautioned parents against treating the virus as harmless to their kids. They said they are seeing plenty of cases of "long COVID," where children have long-term health effects that are tied to the illness.

One of the most severe is multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a condition in which a person's organs and body systems get inflamed or damaged following an episode of COVID-19. Bravo said his practice treated a child early on in the pandemic with this condition, and it proved extremely serious.

"This one had to be airlifted out of the area," Bravo said. "It really changed my trajectory and perspective because none of us knows who is that kid going to be when we see these kids with COVID-19. That has really created a degree of significant caution."

The doctors encouraged all adults and children over age 12 to receive one of the COVID-19 vaccines that has emergency authorization from the FDA. They fielded several safety-related questions about the vaccine, including whether it's safe for a teenager to get at the height of puberty and whether parents should be concerned about the rare side effect of myocarditis and pericarditis, which are inflammations of the heart.

Hutchison advised that there is a higher, albeit still rare, incidence of myocarditis and pericarditis among people infected with live COVID-19 than in those receiving the vaccine. Bravo also added that "mortality isn't really associated with this."

"I really do understand the parents' concerns on this," Bravo said. "I really don't think it rises to the level that I'd advise against getting the vaccine."

The only circumstance under which the doctors said they would advise someone against getting the vaccine is if that person had a significant allergy to any of the vaccine's components, or if they were undergoing a treatment like chemotherapy that significantly weakened their immune system.

"There aren't many absolute contraindications," said Tamara Battle, a Templeton-based pediatrician.

Discussing the impact of the pandemic on children's mental health and development, the physicians called what they're seeing on the ground "heartbreaking."

"The emotional stressors that have been placed upon children and their families ... we went from a world of complete normalcy, to everything is abnormal. Everything is to be feared," Battle said. "The kids get one childhood. How do we reverse this situation? How can we get back to their being with their peers?"

The doctors said they expect a vaccine for children under 12 to be approved by the FDA sometime in the fall. Until then, they strongly urged community members who are eligible for the shots to seek them immediately.

"This is our opportunity to protect your neighbor, protect the child that has heart disease, protect the child that has diabetes, protect some of the younger kids that can't be vaccinated," Hutchison said. Δ

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