The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic affects us in many ways. Pediatric patients, interestingly, are largely unaffected clinically by this disease. Less than 1% of documented infections occur in children under 10 years old, according to a review of over 72,000 cases from China.1 In that review, most children were asymptomatic or had mild illness, only three required intensive care, and only one death had been reported as of March 10, 2020. This is in stark contrast to the shocking morbidity and mortality statistics we are becoming all too familiar with on the adult side.
From a social standpoint, however, our pediatric patients’ lives have been turned upside down. Their schedules and routines upended, their education and friendships interrupted, and many are likely experiencing real anxiety and fear.2 For countless children, school is a major source of social, emotional, and nutritional support that has been cut off. Some will lose parents, grandparents, or other loved ones to this disease. Parents will lose jobs and will be unable to afford necessities. Pediatric patients will experience delays of procedures or treatments because of the pandemic. Some have projected that rates of child abuse will increase as has been reported during natural disasters.3
Pediatricians around the country are coming together to tackle these issues in creative ways, including the rapid expansion of virtual/telehealth programs. The school systems are developing strategies to deliver online content, and even food, to their students’ homes. Hopefully these tactics will mitigate some of the potential effects on the mental and physical well-being of these patients.
How about my kids? Will they be all right? I am lucky that my husband and I will have jobs throughout this ordeal. Unfortunately, given my role as a hospitalist and my husband’s as a pulmonary/critical care physician, these same jobs that will keep our kids nourished and supported pose the greatest threat to them. As health care workers, we are worried about protecting our families, which may include vulnerable members. The Spanish health ministry announced that medical professionals account for approximately one in eight documented COVID-19 infections in Spain.4 With inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) in our own nation, we are concerned that our statistics could be similar.
There are multiple strategies to protect ourselves and our families during this difficult time. First, appropriate PPE is essential and integrity with the process must be maintained always. Hospital leaders can protect us by tirelessly working to acquire PPE. In Grand Rapids, Mich., our health system has partnered with multiple local manufacturing companies, including Steelcase, who are producing PPE for our workforce.5 Leaders can diligently update their system’s PPE recommendations to be in line with the latest CDC recommendations and disseminate the information regularly. Hospitalists should frequently check with their Infection Prevention department to make sure they understand if there have been any changes to the recommendations. Innovative solutions for sterilization of PPE, stethoscopes, badges and other equipment, such as with the use of UV boxes or hydrogen peroxide vapor,6 should be explored to minimize contamination. Hospitalists should bring a set of clothes and shoes to change into upon arrival to work and to change out of prior to leaving the hospital.
We must also keep our heads strong. Currently the anxiety amongst physicians is palpable but there is solidarity. Hospital leaders must ensure that hospitalists have easy access to free mental health resources, such as virtual counseling. Wellness teams must rise to the occasion with innovative tactics to support us. For example, Spectrum Health’s wellness team is sponsoring a blog where physicians can discuss COVID-19–related challenges openly. Hospitalist leaders should ensure that there is a structure for debriefing after critical incidents, which are sure to increase in frequency. Email lists and discussion boards sponsored by professional society also provide a collaborative venue for some of these discussions. We must take advantage of these resources and communicate with each other.
For me, in the end it comes back to the kids. My kids and most pediatric patients are not likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, but they are also not immune to the toll that fighting this pandemic will take on our families. We took an oath to protect our patients, but what do we owe to our own children? At a minimum we can optimize how we protect ourselves every day, both physically and mentally. As we come together as a strong community to fight this pandemic, in addition to saving lives, we are working to ensure that, in the end, the kids will be all right.
Dr. Hadley is chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Spectrum Health/Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., and clinical assistant professor at Michigan State University, East Lansing.
1. Wu Z, McGoogan JM. Characteristics of and important lessons from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in China: Summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. JAMA. 2020 Feb 24. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.2648.
2. Hagan JF Jr; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health; Task Force on Terrorism. Psychosocial implications of disaster or terrorism on children: A guide for the pediatrician. Pediatrics. 2005;116(3):787-795.
3. Gearhart S et al. The impact of natural disasters on domestic violence: An analysis of reports of simple assault in Florida (1997-2007). Violence Gend. 2018 Jun. doi: 10.1089/vio.2017.0077.
4. Minder R, Peltier E. Virus knocks thousands of health workers out of action in Europe. The New York Times. March 24, 2020.
5. McVicar B. West Michigan businesses hustle to produce medical supplies amid coronavirus pandemic. MLive. March 25, 2020.
6. Kenney PA et al. Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor sterilization of N95 respirators for reuse. medRxiv preprint. 2020 Mar. doi: 10.1101/2020.03.24.20041087.