Cedric Dark works in the emergency room at Ben Taub hospital. He’s a doctor, a professor, and a parent.
When he comes home, he wipes down his belongings, keeps his work clothes separate, and showers as soon as he steps in the door. He spends his time balancing the needs of his kindergarten-age son with conference calls and zoom meetings.
And on top of that, he has to worry about bringing COVID-19 home with him.
“How do you manage family and the risk of being a healthcare worker?” he said. “You know, you have to work.”
Dark is one of the lucky ones — his kid has remained healthy throughout the past few months. But he’s also just one of many parents worried about their children during the pandemic.
There are more than 2,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in children 9 and younger in Harris County. And parents trying to take care of those children have been forced to put themselves at risk.
“Your child can’t live upstairs and you can slip them meals under the door like you might be able to do for another adult living in your home,” said Dr. Stacey Rose, an infectious disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine. “You’re going to have to care (of) that kid and bathe that kid.”
For parents of sick children, “odds are you’ve been exposed,” Rose said. And even as parents worry about the impact on their children — and themselves — there needs to be a focus on preventing the spread of the disease, she said.
“Those same rules apply whether to a child or an adult,” Rose said. “Recognizing that yes, you are going to have to put your hands on that kid and do what’s necessary to care for them when they can’t care for themselves.”
The CDC outlines specific steps that parents should be taking to prevent the spread of disease. The steps include disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, washing clothes on the warmest settings possible, and wearing masks and gloves.
But one concern, Rose said, is making sure that those rules are clear to children. Guidelines such as frequent hand washing may seem obvious to most adults, but children should be given clear rules about when and how things need to be done.
She suggested scheduled handwashing, and making sure rules such as washing one’s hands after removing their mask are clear.
“We say frequent handwashing, but if you’re a kid, you don’t know what that means necessarily,” Rose said. “And so we as the adults in the room have to provide additional guidance around that.”
No singular step is enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but each piece working in tandem provides a strong defense, according to Dr. Susan McLellan, an infectious disease expert at University of Texas Medical Branch.
And depending on what age group a child falls under, there may be different areas of focus, McLellan said.
“When it is a small child, you’re going to do a lot of wiping up, helping them to control those secretions,” she said. “As they get older, and they can listen to instructions, then it’s handwashing, learning to wear a mask…and so on.”
Every step of prevention is necessary, McLellan said. That includes masks: The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that children can wear face coverings as early as the age of 2.
While children are less likely to develop COVID-19 symptoms, they are still susceptible to the disease, and health risks remain even after recovery.
A condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, has been discovered in children who either had or were exposed to COVID-19. The condition causes different parts of the body to become inflamed, which could include but are not limited to the lungs, brain, and heart, according to the CDC.
The direct cause of MIS-C is unknown.
The New England Journal of Medicine released a study last month that surveyed 186 patients diagnosed with MIS-C. Of those, 80% of required intensive care. Four of the children surveyed died due to this condition.
And McLellan stressed that some of the worst risks of COVID-19 are the ones that follow the virus.
“This particular virus causes fatalities not by its initial infection, but by its impact on the immune system and how it makes our own bodies kill us,” McLellan said. “That is true with adults and that is true with children as far as we can tell.”