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How does coronavirus affect kids? Sonoma County doctors offer advice

The difference in life for children now and three weeks ago looks like night and day: No school, limits on seeing friends and older relatives, and a stream of homebound orders from Mom and Dad - don’t touch that, stay away from them, go back and wash your hands.

Last week, the seriousness of that new reality grew amid confirmation that at least four Sonoma County children - people younger than 18 - had have tested positive for COVID-19, according to county public health records.

The county, as it has with other individual cases, has not released any information on their medical status or whether they’ve been hospitalized.

While the pandemic has hit older generations and those with pre-existing medical conditions hardest, kids have not gone unscathed.

Many young people who have contracted it may show only mild symptoms that could be missed or mistaken for something else, medical experts said.

“They can be a silent spreader,” said Dr. Vincent Tamariz, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor with Sutter Health’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

It’s still not clear exactly why the pandemic has been disproportionately less dangerous for children.

One hypothesis with some traction, Tamariz said, is based on the idea that coronavirus may strike through a particular type of cellular receptor that becomes more common with age.

In Sonoma County, among the 111 coronavirus cases documented through Sunday night, four are younger than 18; 55 are between the ages of 18 and 49; 33 are between 50 and 64; and 19 are 65 or older. As of Saturday, 160 of California’s 13,438 confirmed cases were patients younger than 18 - about 1%.

No data was available on the ages of the 319 people who have died statewide from the disease.

They may be less severely affected physically, but “kids know exactly what is going on in our community,” said Dr. Heather Iezza, a Santa Rosa pediatrician with St. Joseph Health. “It’s impossible for them not to” with preschool, day care centers and schools closing.

A tip for parents seeking to reassure worried kids, she offered, is to focus on health benefits of pandemic rules such as proper social distancing and good hygiene and less on the consequences of getting sick.

“It is really, really difficult for them to not to touch things,” Iezza noted, so parents should leave young children at home when venturing out on shopping trips or other errands.

“Children are not good at keeping distance from other people because it’s so unnatural for them,” she said.

Still, children need time and space to play, Tamariz said. He recommended bringing hand sanitizer on outdoor excursions and avoiding places where other people have gone.

“A playground may be empty, but it may have been touched by thousands of hands,” he said. (And nearly all are closed, anyways.)

Dr. Deirdre Bernard-Pearl, medical director for Santa Rosa Community Health’s pediatric campus, noted that kids’ mental health also should be a concern.

It is a particular issue among adolescents, who may be experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety and isolation made worse in some cases by social media, even without a pandemic.

It’s important to find substitutes for eating together, exercising in groups or other joint activities that are now frowned upon, she said.

“I think that given this pandemic, it’s just really important that we all get creative and find ways of connecting with each other,” she said.

Kids pose a tricky problem for tracking and taming the coronavirus. They are low priorities for testing, given they experience milder symptoms and lack the responsibilities of adults, Iezza said. It’s unclear how many of the county’s 2,373 negative results come from tests of children.

Tamariz noted that while children may be less prone to developing serious illness from COVID-19, it’s important not to adopt the fallacious perspective that their age protects them.

“The idea that kids are immune or not at risk is not an idea to have in your head,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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