Many parents and pediatricians are wondering how children will be affected by this year’s flu season coupled with the coronavirus pandemic.
Researchers at Children’s National Hospital found that while COVID-19 may not be worse for children than the flu, it’s not better either.
A study published Tuesday in JAMA Network Open looked at the course of illness in 315 children who had COVID-19 between March and May, and more than 1,400 children with seasonal influenza between October and June.
Scientists found no difference in rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit or mechanical ventilator use between the two groups.
“I didn’t see this coming when I was thinking about doing the study,” said Dr. Xiaoyan Song, director of Infection Control and Epidemiology at Children’s National and professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science. “It took several rounds of thinking and combing through the data to convince myself that this was the conclusion.”
Dr. Michael Grosso, chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, said the study's findings are good news and bad news for children.
“We need to keep in mind that influenza remains a serious health risk in childhood, especially for those under 2, those with underlying health problems or both,” he said. These complications could include exacerbations of asthma, viral pneumonia or complications in the brain and nervous systems.
Another unexpected finding was that more pediatric patients with COVID-19 than with seasonal influenza reported symptoms like fever, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, body ache or chest pain at the time of diagnosis.
The study results come after recent concerns of asymptomatic spread, especially among children who are more likely to have mild disease compared to adults. Song said it's a hopeful sign "from a prevention and planning perspective."
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“We always emphasize early recognition and early isolation with COVID,” Song said. “Having a clinical picture in mind will assist clinicians as they diagnose patients with symptoms of the coronavirus.”
However, she plans to test children for both COVID-19 and the flu if patients exhibit overlapping symptoms, since it remains unknown whether both viruses can be carried at once.
"Children in the past have often acquired two or more respiratory viruses at the same time, and the severity of lower respiratory tract infection is often greater under these conditions," Grosso said.
Experts say the study underscores the importance of getting vaccinated for the flu this season. Although it’s rare, Grosso said, nearly 200 children died annually of influenza in the past four seasons – mostly those not immunized.
During the study period, the researchers noticed an abrupt decline in influenza cases in mid-March at Children's National after local schools closed and stay-at-home orders were implemented.
Song says the impact of school closures on the spread of COVID-19 among children is the next area of study for her research team.
“What we don’t know is how current social distancing efforts will influence the number of infected children,” Grosso said. “We can only hope that these efforts, and flu immunization at the earliest possible time, will protect kids from the worst of these viral infections.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID and flu: Kids don't get sicker with coronavirus versus influenza