Fort Worth, Texas,
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COVID-19 Cases Hit Record Highs As Kids Return to School

How can you tell the difference between COVID and the common cold or the flu?

Written by: Gina Best

Pediatric COVID-19 cases skyrocketed this past week, with Cook Children’s Medical Center reporting one-in-three children tested turning up positive—all less than a month after the first omicron case was reported in North Texas.

Positive cases now account for 31% of tests throughout Cook Children’s Health Care System, about 600 a day. It’s the highest number seen at Cook Children’s since the pandemic began in March 2020 and surpassing the height of the delta surge in September. As of Tuesday, 33 patients were hospitalized, with three being treated in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

The latest explosion in COVID-19 cases may be fueled by both the omicron and delta variants at work, according to a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As of the week ending Dec. 25, omicron appeared as the dominant variant, but the delta variant still comprised roughly 40% of reported cases, the report states.

Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., medical director of Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s, was interviewed on “CBS Mornings” this week. She says the hospital’s pediatricians and clinics have seen children and teens of all ages testing positive.

“It’s really anywhere on the spectrum,” she says of the recent spike. “We’ve had some babies who were only a few weeks old.”

Other children’s hospitals in Texas and across the country have seen a similar uptick in sick children overwhelming the health care system. More than 325,000 positive cases were reported during the week ending Dec. 30, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported, adding it was the nation’s highest increase in child COVID cases since the pandemic began. The unprecedented number represents a 64% jump from reported cases the previous week.

Top health officials in the country have voiced predictions that a surge may continue as a result of holiday gatherings and vacations but expect it to peak by the end of January based on how the omicron variant behaved in South Africa last month.

With numbers of child cases still on the rise, parents are grappling to address all things COVID. Here’s what families need to know:

How can you tell the difference between COVID and the common cold or the flu? Basically, it’s tough to distinguish between them.

Similar to a cold, the most common symptoms of the omicron variant (found to be much more transmissible) are sore throat, cough, fatigue, congestion and runny nose. The delta variant (thought to cause more severe illness) also generally presents with common cold-like symptoms, such as cough, fever or headache, but also may cause a significant loss of smell.

To complicate matters, COVID-19 also shares some common symptoms with the flu, according to the CDC. Both can show a wide-range of symptoms, including sore throat; fever and chills; headache; cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; fatigue; runny or stuffy nose; body or muscle aches; vomiting and diarrhea; and a change or loss of taste or smell, though that appears more prevalent in COVID.

Since it can be difficult to distinguish between the cause of these symptoms, a test is the best way to determine what it is. COVID testing can be done at home (although tests may be difficult to find right now), at a laboratory or at a test site provided in your area.

 “At this point, it’s probably best to assume you are positive until you are proven otherwise,” says Marc Mazade, M.D., director of Infection Control at Cook Children’s. If family members are having symptoms, they should get tested as soon as possible, which may take longer than usual.

See the CDC website for additional guidelines on who and when someone should get tested.

 Are vaccines the best way to keep my kids from getting seriously ill with COVID-19?

Yes. As it stands, COVID-19 vaccinations are highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalizations and death, the CDC reports. And the emergence of the highly contagious variant omicron and its ability for breakthrough infections further emphasizes the importance of vaccination and boosters, the report states.

Children ages 5 and up are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. This week the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved an additional Pfizer booster shot for children ages 12-15, and an additional dose for certain children ages 5-11 if they are immunocompromised.

Cook Children’s pediatrician Diane Arnaout, M.D., encourages eligible children to get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

“Don’t let the number of shots worry you,” she says to parents who may have concerns. “There are lots of vaccines that require boosters, and I give them to your kids throughout their early years at timed intervals to make sure they’re protected into adulthood.”

The second, third and fourth shots do what their name says, Dr. Arnaout says. They boost the antibody response to a certain antigen and assure a large portion of the population develops immunity, she says.

“Some shots give us long-term immunity with just two doses and others with five. It just depends on the nature of the vaccine,” she says. “Sometimes viruses mutate so quickly, we need a slightly adjusted vaccine every year to help us fight what’s circulating that year, like the flu shot.”

Although it’s difficult to know at this point, she says, the COVID vaccine may someday become like the annual flu shot.

“Again, we are building this boat as we float in it,” Dr. Arnaout says. “I admire and thank all the scientists, doctors and data collectors who are helping us with this guidance.”

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