HARLINGEN — Strokes, labored breathing, pneumonia.
According to health experts, COVID-19 kills less than one percent of its victims on average. Some of those who don’t die can experience great suffering and a long recovery period.
Patients with health problems such as diabetes, excess weight and high blood pressure tend to endure especially harsh symptoms. Those conditions tend to affect older populations, though young adults in their 20s and 30s are vulnerable to COVID-19 related strokes.
But what about children and teenagers? Where do they stand in all this?
“ In children, there is this phenomenon that’s been identified of this multi-system inflammatory syndrome that develops,” said Dr. Christopher Romero, internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center.
“ It’s very similar to autoimmune conditions that we’ve known about for quite some time,” Romero said. “The good news is that the majority of kids that come down with COVID-19 seem to do well and really are able to recover.”
But not so fast.
“ There’s a small number of them that have had some longer-lasting health issues and it’s affected multiple organ symptoms,” he said.
Romero referred to a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine which describes children developing multi-system inflammation syndrome associated with COVID-19; 73 percent of them had been perfectly healthy before being infected with COVID-19.
“ Besides sometimes developing severe respiratory infections, some patients developed aneurysms in the coronary vessels that supply blood to the heart,” Romero said. “The good news is that this severe level of disease is rare in children, but it does highlight how we need to take COVID-19 seriously for all ages and prevent infection as much as possible.”
Parents should look for the same classic COVID-19 symptoms in children as they would see in older groups: fever, malaise, cough, shortness of breath.
“ Teenagers, much like young adults, tend to exhibit less symptoms for the majority of cases,” Romero said. “But in all age ranges there’s the risk for having severe disease from COVID-19 as well as spreading it to other people in their homes.”
That’s the danger. Young healthy people may have COVID-19 with no symptoms, but they can bring it home to older relatives with underlying health conditions. Those conditions could put them at risk for contracting a critical case of COVID-19. Thus young people find themselves in the difficult predicament of sheltering in place. Not a pleasant situation for anyone, but for kids and teenagers who need social interaction and school activities with friends, this can be nothing less than traumatic in its own right.
Homer Salinas, 13, of Harlingen, knows this all too well. He’s had to shelter at home for months while the pandemic rages. It hasn’t been easy.
“ I feel very sad that I can’t see my friends and family, because really I enjoy being with them and spending time with them,” said Homer, an eighth grader at Memorial Middle School.
“ The fear of me or my loved ones getting sick hasn’t left my mind because I don’t want to lose any of them,” he said. “I also don’t enjoy that we can’t go to school or play sports because I enjoy them both so much. This has just taken a huge toll on all of us and people have just lost their jobs.”
The word “toll” was heavy on the minds of medical professionals.
“ It’s very real the toll that this takes on all of our daily lives,” Romero said. “Those of us working in hospitals on the front lines fighting against COVID-19 aren’t the only ones impacted. Everyone in our society is going through a rough patch right now.”
Romero as well as local mental health professionals have emphasized the importance of accepting the new reality. Adults must acknowledge children’s need to say “this isn’t easy, that this is hard and at times it’s hard on all of us.
“ To get through it,” Romero continued, “I think that we have to still hold on as much as we can to some semblance of normalcy, calling up your friends and your family on a regular basis and staying in contact with those people that are important in your life. Just hearing your loved ones laugh and being able to share stories with each other, that’s something fundamental to all of us.”
Parents and teachers must keep a close eye on children during this stressful time, said Sandra Tovar, director of guidance and counseling for the Harlingen school district.
“ This is taking a huge toll on students, and so their parents are really going to have to monitor their children,” Tovar said. “I think parents need to allow their children to speak about how they are feeling.”
This rings especially true for children who have lost a parent or other family member during this stressful time, or any other association such as a friend or teacher.
“ Give the children permission to grieve,” she said. “Allow the children to talk and express their feelings.”
She and Romero both emphasized the importance of quality time.
“ They can go outside and do some exercise,” Tovar said. “They can play board games with family members, they can write in a journal. If they like to draw, draw. They need to find a way to communicate with other people through Zoom or FaceTime.”
Tovar said counselors at each school will soon be available to parents and students. She herself is creating an online counseling referral form for parents to request counseling services. The district will post that form on the HCISD.org website along with a list of mental health resources. Beginning Oct. 6, parents and students will be able to access a counselor two evenings a week by Zoom or phone call.
In spite of all the grief and uncertainty hanging over the heads of many, everyone seems optimistic for a better future. Romero himself has said on more than one occasion he believes vaccines and therapeutics will become available sooner rather than later.
“ I know things will get better. Have faith, stay strong, stay positive.”