What we can do to protect our youngest from Delta

5 min read
Dr Mataroria Lyndon

28 September 2021

Opinion as featued in the New Zealand Herald

News that a student with Covid-19 was possibly infectious while attending primary school in the Waikato will have set alarm bells ringing for many parents.

With Aotearoa working to contain the latest Delta outbreak, some parents will be wondering if they should be sending their kids back to school once they reopen.

This is a natural reaction. It's okay to be concerned and to have questions. We all want to protect our tamariki from getting sick.

The good news is that children are at a much lower risk of suffering serious illness from Covid-19.

This doesn't mean they don't get sick. They do.

Compared to last year's outbreak, we have seen more young people become infected by the Delta variant. In fact, 17 per cent of the cases in this latest outbreak have been aged 9 or under.

But despite children being proportionately over-represented in this outbreak, only 1.6 per cent of those hospitalised since Covid first arrived in Aotearoa have been under 9.

Importantly, no child under 9 has been admitted to ICU.

The evidence shows children have very low rates of serious illness and hospitalisation. While this should provide some peace of mind, we nevertheless want to minimise the risk of our tamariki catching Covid, or passing it on to others.

This is particularly the case in Aotearoa, where we have high rates of respiratory illnesses, with our Māori and Pacific communities hardest hit.

So, what do we need to do?

The most important thing we can do to protect our tamariki and mokopuna is to get ourselves vaccinated.

And so far, we're doing record numbers, but we have more work to d

As of September 20, 73.5 per cent of Kiwis have had at least one dose of the vaccine, with 38.5 per cent of the eligible population fully vaccinated, but we need to reach higher rates still among young people and Māori and Pacific communities.

To protect our most vulnerable, we need to be aiming for a vaccination rate of at least 90 per cent.

While challenging, we can get there if we all play our part and get vaccinated to protect ourselves and our whānau.

Many will want to know why we aren't vaccinating under-12s to also protect them.

While the Pfizer vaccine is being given to some children in other countries, such as Israel, most countries are awaiting the outcomes of clinical trials currently under way before approving use in children under-12.

If these trials show the vaccine is safe and effective for children aged between 5 and 12, then it's likely that vaccination for this age group will be approved and rolled out in Aotearoa at some point in the next year.

But until this time, there are other important steps we can be taking to protect our young people.

A key step is talking to our children about practising healthy hygiene habits and keeping children home from school or daycare if they're sick. This will not only help prevent the spread of Covid but also help prevent them from catching colds, flus and other bugs.

Talk to them about the importance of covering their mouth when they cough and sneeze, regularly washing their hands and staying home when they are sick.

Be careful not to be too alarmist. While it is important to talk to them about Covid and what is happening, try to do it in a calm and reassuring way. You'd be surprised, they probably know more than you think.

When it comes to social distancing and mask-wearing, this can be more challenging with younger children.

While masks are a good idea, it is important that your child knows how to wear them properly. It's also a good idea to practise at home by wearing masks at home as a family for short periods of time to get them used to it.

Positively explain to your child why it's important to wear your mask. For example, tell your child, "We wear a mask to prevent us catching bugs that could make us sick. When we wear a mask, it makes it harder for the bugs to jump from person to person."

And while it might be tempting, it is not a good idea to keep your child home from school unless they're sick.

The risk of them catching Covid from school is low. In fact, most of the transmission in children has been among whānau rather than in schools.

By going hard and early, we have prevented widespread community outbreaks and our alert system ensures we can restrict contact when we need to take action.

Schools are closed at alert levels 3 and 4, and only reopen to all students when we reach alert level 2. This is when we are confident there is no community transmission occurring.

While schools are large, they also set up contained bubbles and that means they are relatively contained environments.

The last couple of years have been disruptive to children and it is important that we get them back to normal – learning, socialising and playing with their friends.

The best way we can do that is for us all to get vaccinated.

Dr Mataroria Lyndon is co-founder and clinical director for primary healthcare provider Tend. He completed his Masters of Public Health at Harvard University and his PhD at the University of Auckland.