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KU Health System doctor highlights value of COVID public health interventions for at-risk children

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Canadian study notes general benefit of masking, distancing and other precautions

TOPEKA — A University of Kansas Health System physician says a Canadian study affirmed nonpharmaceutical public health interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic decreased respiratory-related hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths among medically fragile children.

Researchers analyzed experiences of children in the three years prior to the pandemic and outcomes over two years of the pandemic when it was common to mask, social distance and take other precautions to limit exposure to the virus. Authors of the JAMA Network article said the study indicated public health advice associated with COVID-19 could be beneficial to youth outside of national emergencies.

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“Over that two-year period they saw a substantial reduction in the severe illness and death,” said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health System in Kansas City, Kansas.

Hawkinson was among Kansas health care professionals who urged people to take steps, including vaccination and masking, to lower the risk of COVID-19. Gov. Laura Kelly and state health officials ordered social distancing, quarantines and wearing of masks early in the pandemic to minimize spread of the virus. Effective vaccines didn’t become broadly available in the United States until 2021.

Politicians and activists in Kansas and elsewhere offered withering criticism of decisions intended to shield people from a virus that contributed to the death of 10,000 in Kansas and 1.1 million in the United States. Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson area anesthesiologist investigated for prescribing a livestock dewormer to COVID-19 patients, said it was “ludicrous” to think public health officials were effective during the pandemic.

The article published by JAMA Network Open, a peer reviewed general medical journal, concluded that during the two pandemic years evaluated there were 45,000 fewer respiratory hospitalizations and 4,200 fewer respiratory ICU admissions than would be expected among medically at-risk children in Canada. In addition, researchers said there were 119 fewer deaths among Canadian children with complex medical conditions in that period.

The November report used Canadian health administrative data of children younger than 18 years in community and pediatric hospitals. Researchers evaluated the three-year prepandemic period of April 2017 to March 2020 and the pandemic period of April 2020 to February 2022.

Children with medically complex conditions, including cystic fibrosis, congenital heart disease or sickle cell disease, faced risk of acute illness from respiratory infections during the pandemic.

“They did see that those mitigation efforts which were used to protect against COVID did also help those young, those very vulnerable children, from severe respiratory illness,” Hawkinson said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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