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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – An increasing percentage of New Mexico’s coronavirus cases are children and teenagers – a particular concern because of their potential to spread the virus, doctors say, even without showing symptoms.
About 13% of the state’s COVID-19 infections – confirmed by testing – are people who are 19 or younger, a jump from just 7% a few weeks ago, state officials say.
Children are more likely than adults to have mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all. But they can still spread the virus, health experts say, a potential challenge if they’re visiting, say, grandparents or older caregivers.
In an interview, Dr. John Pederson, children’s program medical director at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, encouraged parents to keep their kids at home as much as possible amid the pandemic – for their own protection and to avoid spreading the disease to more vulnerable people.
He also suggested taking steps to ease kids’ anxiety about the disease, teaching them how to wash their hands properly and helping them wear masks when out in public.
“I think it’s important for parents to know that their child could be asymptomatic and have the disease,” Pederson said. Kids, he added, “are not particularly good at hand hygiene and are not particularly good at not touching surfaces.”
In New Mexico, children appear to comprise a higher percentage of virus cases than they do in other states. There isn’t an obvious explanation why, and it could simply be a result of the state’s aggressive testing strategy.
Nonetheless, New Mexico’s percentage of cases involving children is roughly four times higher than the national average, state health officials say. New Mexico, in fact, is No. 2 in the country by that standard, just behind Wyoming.
“This is becoming a big issue here in New Mexico right now,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in a recent public briefing.
Health experts said it isn’t clear why New Mexico’s cases involving children are so high. It could be that other communities aren’t testing the same cross-section of their population as New Mexico.
Pederson, for his part, said Presbyterian hasn’t treated many children “in a hospital setting” for COVID-19. But kids can be particularly challenging, he said, when it comes to limiting the spread of the disease.
The role kids play in spreading COVID-19 is still a matter of scientific research.
Janis Gonzales, a physician and chief of the family health bureau at the state Department of Health, said there was concern earlier this year that children were a driving factor in the rapid spread of the disease. But more recent research suggests that may not be true, she said, because children aren’t usually the first person in a household to get the disease.
In other words, they may be getting it from adults rather than the other way around.
“Things have been changing so quickly” with our understanding of the disease, Gonzales said. “There are new studies coming out every day.”
At this point, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns parents that children may pass the disease to older adults and other at-risk individuals.
“If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk,” the agency says on its website.
In a public briefing Wednesday, Gonzales said about half the children in New Mexico who test positive for the virus don’t show any symptoms. About 40% have mild symptoms, less than 10% have severe symptoms and 1% to 2% end up hospitalized.
No one under 20 has died.
Pederson encouraged parents to watch for anxiety in their children about COVID-19. It can be empowering for kids to address their fears by taking action, such as learning to wash their hands properly and frequently, or writing a letter to a frontline health care provider.
Parents, Pederson said, should also ensure their kids are getting accurate information from trusted sources, such as the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and state Department of Health.
“I think it’s very important that for our kids,” Pederson said, “we help guide them to the right source.”
Scrase said children may have different COVID-19 symptoms than adults. He encouraged parents to watch for nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, especially if one of those symptoms is accompanied by a fever.
“It’s important to get on that early and get the kids tested,” Scrase said.
Gonzales, meanwhile, urged parents to continue taking their kids to the doctor for regular checks-ups and immunizations.
“The (medical) offices are as safe as they possibly can be,” she said. “Pediatricians really do want to see these children.”