Given the recent concerning trends in COVID-19 in children, the following organizations support this statement: UW Health, the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Children's Wisconsin, Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Wisconsin Medical Society.
The number of new cases of COVID-19 have increased steadily over the past weeks, both in Wisconsin and nationwide. New and more infectious variants, such as the UK strain (B.1.1.7), combined with a loosening of the mitigation strategies have turned states like Michigan into hotspots and fed new outbreaks among children linked to youth sports, schools and extracurricular activities. In the past few weeks, Wisconsin is seeing more cases in individuals under 18 years old than any other age group.
With more infectious variants on the rise in Wisconsin, there has also been a significant increase in potential outbreaks (nearly 470) in educational settings that are being investigated. Over the course of the year, Wisconsin schools developed robust and effective mitigation protocols to help prevent in-school transmission of COVID-19. As more children in the community become infected, most often through increasing social interactions outside of school, school-based exposures have become more common. A high density of youth sports is also occurring often without sufficient attention to prevention efforts. As most children are not yet vaccinated, higher-risk interactions occurring more regularly is raising concern within the medical community.
While the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic is borne by older adults, the risk of severe illness in children should not be taken lightly. Research released by the Journal of the American Medical Association this month indicates that 11.7 percent of pediatric patients with COVID-19 who came to a hospital or emergency department and were admitted, 31.1 percent were ill enough to require some form of intensive care. In addition, pediatric specialists across the country are working to understand and care for a growing number of children with long-COVID-19, also known as "long haulers," as well as children with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) following exposure to COVID-19.
In-person instruction and athletics are essential to the mental and physical health of Wisconsin's children. With more transmissible variants of COVID-19 actively spreading, these activities must be paired with renewed and continued public health priorities, including:
Increase diligence in following public health measures at schools, during youth sports and other extracurricular activities outside of the home
Wear a mask that consistently covers your mouth and nose at all times
Watch your distance
Wash your hands
Only participate in activities and school when well
Increase urgency in vaccinations
Increase the vaccination rate for those 16 and older (currently eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine) to cut down on the overall spread of COVID-19 and prevent further variant formation.
Prioritize research to safely allow kids younger than 16 years old to get vaccinated and prepare roll-out plan for when the vaccine is approved .
It is also important to clearly highlight that the more the entire community - which includes all adults - continues to consistently adhere to the above measures in all public settings, the lower the spread to children will be.
"While the development of the COVID-19 vaccine has been a modern medical triumph, and we are extremely optimistic about the data we're seeing about its effectiveness in younger kids, now is not the time to get complacent," said Dr. Michael Gutzeit, chief medical officer of Children's Wisconsin. "We have come so far and we all have a role to play in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Until the vaccine is available to all ages, we strongly encourage everyone to continue to wear a mask, continue to practice social distancing when possible and, as always, continue to wash your hands thoroughly and often. Prevention remains the most effective strategy in overcoming this pandemic and we know these safety precautions work and can go a long way to limiting the spread of the disease."
For more than a year, providers have worked with parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, and schools to balance the need to respond to the pandemic with the psychological, social and economic effects of that response on Wisconsin's children and families. It is becoming clear that pandemic fatigue, inconsistent masking and distancing, and exposure to new COVID-19 variants threatens the delicate balance that has protected kids to this point.
"It is our collective responsibility to protect the health and well-being of our most important and precious resource - our children," said Dr. Ellen Wald, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "Together, we must assure continued adherence to the mitigation strategies that we know to be extremely effective in providing protection during in-person school and co-curricular activities, including athletics. As custodians of the safety of our children, please join in this effort."
The data we're seeing indicate we're at a critical point, according to Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and UW Health pediatrician.
"What's happening now is a major threat to the careful, thoughtful, collaborative work we've done, and will undo the hard-won progress made," Navsaria said. "Over the last year pediatricians, public health professionals and so many throughout our state have worked to keep our children safe and get them back in school. We need your help, your care, your love and your work to protect children and communities throughout the state."
Please look to the following resources for guidance and safe practices regarding schools and sports activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Wisconsin Department of Health Services
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association