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Health & Science

Michigan Sees Surge In COVID-19 Among Children

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Coronavirus infections are rising again in the U.S., in part due to variants of the virus, including the highly transmissible one first found in the U.K. New cases are surging in Michigan, especially among children. And yesterday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer made this recommendation.

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GRETCHEN WHITMER: We all have to step up our game for the next two weeks to bring down rising cases. And that's why I'm calling on high schools to voluntarily go remote for two weeks past spring break, calling on youth sports to voluntarily suspend games and practices for two weeks.

SIMON: Dr. Bishara Freij is chief of pediatric infectious disease at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., which is just north of Detroit, and he joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us, Dr. Freij.

BISHARA FREIJ: My pleasure.

SIMON: What's behind the increase among children?

FREIJ: Some of it has been the reopening of many schools to in-person classes, the opening of school athletics, especially high school, obviously, and then the increased testing and, in addition, the appearance of these COVID variants that are more transmissible than some of the original wild-type virus that we had. In addition, there is the concept of COVID fatigue, so some people are getting a little more lax with the improved weather. And so I think it's just a combination of all of these factors.

SIMON: How risky is it for children to become infected compared to adults?

FREIJ: Children do much better than adults in terms of infection. So their infections are much less severe, and far fewer of them get hospitalized. And certainly, death is pretty uncommon.

The problem is it's not predictable who's going to do OK and who won't. So I can tell you that most of the kids that have been really sick that we've taken care of had been previously well children. You know, they were not the chronically ill patients who happened to get COVID on top of their other problems. And so when we look at them, there's no way to predict which child is going to have a bad disease. The odds are low, but you cannot say, my child is going to escape because that child is healthy.

SIMON: What about the danger that even children who are just inflicted with a mild version of the disease could pass that on to an older adult who's very vulnerable?

FREIJ: Yes, that's a very real possibility. Now, in general, kids have been shown to be a less prominent source of infection for adults, but essentially, they are a source of ongoing transmission within families. And, also, they can be a breeding ground for variants that are emerging because if you have virus that's replicating, then you can very easily develop these variants through a replication of the virus.

SIMON: As we just heard, Governor Whitmer is asking for youth sports to hold off for a couple of weeks and for schooling to go back to all remote for a couple of weeks. Are these good steps? More necessary?

FREIJ: Yes, they are. Are they going to make a big dent? Not really. You know, I think the virus is pretty widespread, and the chances are they're just going to bring the numbers down a little bit, but they are not going to make any dent in terms of the long term. What's going to make a dent, really, is the ongoing vaccination efforts, which are very active, and also hopefully in the near future expanding the immunizations to the children as well. But until we get a large segment of the population immunized, I'm afraid these things are like, you know, kicking the can down the road.

SIMON: What do you tell parents who are worried, Doctor?

FREIJ: First of all, I try to put a positive message to the families. So we are much better now than we were a year ago in terms of understanding the disease, understanding what works and what doesn't work. Even though right now there's a big surge in numbers, when I look at my hospital, which is reflective of other places, too, that take care of these sick individuals, the number of adults on ventilators is actually small, considering the numbers. If you looked at the same statistics last spring, a big percentage were on ventilators. So we're getting sick patients, but they are not dying at the same rate. They are weathering it a little better, some of them because they're younger and healthier than the elderly. So what we're seeing is a different disease now. You know, it's younger people who may be sick for a while, but we have medications, we have steroids, we have remdesivir, we have convalescent plasma. We have a lot of things we can offer now that we didn't know about before.

And so the disease is changing in its trajectory, and, you know, our fight is primarily to prevent emergence of strains that will not be protected by the immunity generated by the vaccine. And that is really sort of the imperative that we all do our part by getting ourselves protected and trying to prevent transmission from us to anybody else.

SIMON: Dr. Bishara Freij is chief of pediatric infectious disease at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

FREIJ: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALMUNIA'S "NEW MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.