Coronavirus and What Parents Need to Know

Dr. Laura Jana is a pediatrician, author and health communicator with a faculty appointment at Penn State University’s Prevention Research Center.

In recent weeks, a new and concerning type of coronavirus — now officially called COVID-19 — has managed to literally and figuratively “go viral.” In order to help you sort through and make sense of the barrage of breaking news, commentary and advice as this coronavirus makes its way around the world and into our communities, I wanted to share with you some expert tips and resources for understanding and combating it.

What’s “Novel” About This Coronavirus?

To begin, it’s worth being aware of what this “novel” coronavirus is — as well as what it isn’t. While some types of coronaviruses are known to cause common colds, COVID-19 is a new type not seen or identified before. That inherently means public health and medical professionals need time to figure out how best to test for it, limit its spread and protect those most at risk while at the same time working to identify effective treatment(s) and develop a vaccine.

Encouraging evidence based on what the world and the U.S. have seen thus far has suggested that children appear to be at lower risk than adults — developing either mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. However, a study published in recent days found that even children are potentially at risk for moderate to significant respiratory disease, so it’s worth watching the evidence as it evolves. In either case, because older adults and people with underlying health conditions are proving to be at significantly higher risk, it is and will continue to be very important for your children (and you) to steer clear of grandparents and others at greater risk, especially if/when any of you have any symptoms of illness, even if minor.

Coronavirus vs. “the Flu”

The fact that we are currently in the middle of cold and flu season in the U.S. makes it all the more challenging — for both parents and health professionals — to figure out the difference between those who have the flu and those with symptoms related to this new type of coronavirus. What do the two have in common? Well, both can present with fever, sore throat and cough (as well as headaches, body aches, shortness of breath and other common symptoms). That said, the types of viruses responsible are quite different. While a vaccine and several anti-viral medications are currently available for treating influenza viruses, the same is not yet true for the new coronavirus.

Helping Your Children Understand and Help Prevent the Spread

In order to keep your children, family and loved ones as safe, healthy and as reassured as possible, it’s important to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously while at the same time resisting the urge to panic. For all of us as parents, this means staying up to date on recommendations while focusing your family’s efforts on talking about, explaining and practicing the following tried-and-true, simple yet evidence-based strategies for combating the spread of viral illnesses:

Steer clear of people who are sick. Like many common viruses, the coronavirus is spread through close contact. “Close contact” is typically considered within 6 feet — a distance at which virus-containing “respiratory droplets” coughed or sneezed into the air can reach and expose others. This is why so much emphasis is currently being placed on “social distancing” and also is why you and your children should stay home, should you have any symptoms.

Keep your hands to yourself. Unwashed hands are a clear culprit in the sharing of germs. While keeping your distance from others and avoiding “hand-to-hand” contact is a good idea at least for the next few weeks, make it a habit to greet people with fist bumps or elbow bumps whenever avoiding contact isn’t possible. As best you can, also commit as a family to practicing the challenging but important recommendation to not touch your eyes, nose and mouth — especially with unwashed hands — as this is how viruses get into the body and cause infection.

Watch what you touch. Viruses can live on surfaces for hours or even days, so it’s entirely possible to come in contact with germs left behind by someone who’s infected — on countertops, light switches, doorknobs and grocery carts. Because it’s not always easy to avoid these sorts of frequently touched surfaces, using approved disinfecting products or wipes can help limit their spread.

Wash your hands. Hand-washing with soap and water continues to be one of the most deceivingly simple yet proven strategies for combating infection-causing viruses of all kinds. We’re not just talking about a quick rinse, however. Rather, what works best is the CDC’s five-step, “sudsy,” 20-second assault on germs:

  1. Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold). Turn off the tap and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice from beginning to end.
  4. Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  5. Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

Of course, it’s important not to scare children. While you may understandably be experiencing fear and/or uncertainty, you have the opportunity to give your children a sense of security and control by limiting what they see, hear and discuss to age-appropriate information. Focus on and reinforce the things they can do, such as saying, “When we are careful not to spread germs and wash our hands, it helps us — and everyone around us — to not get sick.” Limiting children’s exposure to television and other media coverage, as well as more serious adult discussions about the pandemic, can significantly help to reduce fear. Just like adults, children want information and the ability to act on it, but it’s up to you to decide how much they can handle.

Where to Go for the Latest Accurate Information

As the coronavirus continues to spread, so will misinformation. To avoid confusion and make sure you have the most up-to-date information, it’s especially important that you stick to reliable sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization and your local health department. And, of course, check with your doctor regarding if and when your child needs to be evaluated, since recommendations regarding who needs to be seen, tested and/or treated will continue to change over the upcoming days, weeks and months.

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