No, COVID-19 is not just a cold — unless a cold has sent nearly 1,000 British Columbian children to hospital and left at least 8,000 more with long-term symptoms.
Protect Our Province B .C., a coalition that’s lobbying for safer schools, is issuing that warning as students return to class for the 2022/23 school year.
The discussion over kids and COVID in British Columbia shot into the headlines last week, when a new seroprevalence study was published in pre-print on the medRxiv site. The study, which includes provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry among its 13 authors, found 70 to 80 per cent of children in Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley contracted COVID-19 between March 2020 and August 2022.
(The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, drew from 14,000 blood samples drawn from a cross-section of age groups at eight separate intervals over those months.)
So what does that mean for B.C.’s children?
Jennifer Heighton can sum up one major concern in two words: long COVID.
Long COVID refers to a collection of after-effects — chest pain, breathing problems, brain fog, fatigue, loss of smell or taste, anxiety and depression, among many more symptoms — that can linger for weeks or months following even a mild infection. Studies have found it occurs in anywhere from two to eight per cent of children.
Heighton, an elementary school teacher who’s part of Protect Our Province, says that number should concern everyone in B.C. — especially given how widespread COVID-19 infection has become.
Taking the approximately 570,000 students in B.C.’s kindergarten-to-Grade 12 schools as a starting point, she did the conservative calculation: If 70 per cent of those kids have been infected with COVID-19, and just two per cent of those kids had long COVID, that’s about 8,000 children.
Or you can take the high end of those numbers: If 80 per cent of them have had COVID-19, and eight per cent of them came down with long COVID? That’s more like 36,000 children.
“Reinfecting children again and again with a virus that shows it can have complications down the road is not a good way forward,” Heighton said. “It’s not good for the community.”
COVID-19 elevates risk of diabetes, heart problems in children
Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, a New Westminster resident and former emergency room physician who’s been working with the Protect Our Province coalition since September 2021, said there’s little public understanding of the long-term health risks that come along with COVID in young people.
She stressed COVID-19 can cause serious complications for children. Diabetes, heart problems, kidney disease and blood clots are among the risks that have been identified in scientific studies.
And, of course, there’s the ever-present spectre of long COVID — something B.C. doesn’t keep public data on.
“We classify those individuals as ‘recovered’ as opposed to chronically disabled,” she said. “Our public health measures should include how many people are disabled or affected by long COVID, and our mitigation measures should include limiting potentially chronic disability.”
Filiatrault said experience in the U.K. — where data on long COVID is, in fact, tracked — has shown that children can suffer greatly from its effects. Children who were good students or high-performing athletes now have difficulty keeping up with assignments or are too tired to even attend school.
“For some of them, it’s a big deal. They can’t get back to the level of fitness and activity that they had previously. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Long COVID in kids — ‘long’ takes on a totally new dimension when you’re a 10-year-old or a five-year-old.”
COVID-19: More than 600 B.C. children hospitalized in 2022 alone
The Protect Our Province coalition is also concerned about the number of children winding up in hospital with COVID.
Filiatrault points out there was a threefold increase in hospitalizations among children between January and August of this year.
In the first “epi-week” of 2022 (Jan. 2 to Jan. 8), the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported that 198 children under the age of 10 had been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with 18 admitted to intensive care.
By the latest reported period, epi-week 35 (Aug. 28 to Sept. 3), hospitalizations in that age group were up to 587 and critical care admissions up to 73.
For the 10-to-19-year-olds, the picture is similar. In epi-week 1, 158 children had been hospitalized and 30 admitted to intensive care. By epi-week 35, the hospitalization number had risen to 371 and critical care admissions to 53.
In total, that means 958 children and teens have been hospitalized — 602 of them since the beginning of 2022 alone — and 126 admitted to critical care.
For Heighton, those numbers are alarming.
“Just because COVID doesn’t send as many kids to the hospital as elderly folks, it still sent about a thousand children to the hospital, and about 600 of them have been in the Omicron era. That’s a lot of kids who still had to go to the hospital,” she said. “Even though for the elderly it might be in the thousands, these are kids. Kids are not supposed to get this sick. If it was something else sending 600 kids to the hospital in eight months, wouldn’t we be worried?”
Children’s vaccination rates remain low in B.C.
Filiatrault noted B.C.’s pandemic response has relied heavily on vaccination — but that poses a problem when children have not been vaccinated in large numbers.
As of Sept. 1, just 46.5 per cent of five-to-11-year-olds in B.C. had received two doses of vaccine.
Among the youngest kids — six months to four years — the number was even lower, with just 17,452 vaccines administered in a total population of 208,000 (or about 8.4 per cent).
“The bulk of them have not been immunized,” Filiatrault said. “We have a government that uses a vaccine-only strategy and is reopening schools, which are the perfect breeding ground for COVID. You bring people together for a long time in poorly ventilated schools, in classrooms, and you don’t mask them? We’re repeating the experience of last January without mitigation.”
Protect Our Province B.C. is calling on the government to introduce safety protections in schools based on what it calls “SMART” mitigation strategies: stay home when symptomatic; mask up; air cleaners in every classroom; refresh indoor air; and implementation of ‘test, trace and isolate’ policies.
(You can find a link to the seroprevalence study at medRxiv online.)