Children are being struck down and hospitalised with Covid in record numbers overseas as Australia fights over school reopening plans.
Teachers are resorting to desperate measures as Covid cases in children soar overseas, providing a grim warning for Australia as the school reopening debate rages on.
Earlier this month, it emerged that the Omicron strain had caused a record rise in paediatric Covid cases in the US, UK and some areas in Europe.
The US has also experienced a record jump in children being hospitalised with the virus, with the Texas Children’s Hospital – the nation’s largest paediatric hospital – confirming Covid hospitalisations had increased fourfold in recent weeks.
The hospital’s pathologist in chief, Dr Jim Versalovic, told CNN he had seen “staggering numbers here from this Omicron surge already”, reflecting a recent announcement from the American Academy of Paediatrics that more than 325,000 paediatric cases had been detected in the US in the week ending December 30.
That represents a 64 per cent increase in new cases in children compared to just a week earlier, with the hospital’s co-director for vaccine development Dr Peter Hotez also telling CNN that while Omicron seemed to be causing less severe symptoms, some research indicated it could cause upper-airway issues which could be riskier for young kids.
“This narrative that it’s just a mild virus is not accurate,” Dr Hotez said.
“ … Even though there’s a lot of happy talk about the Omicron variant, less severe disease, when you add up all the factors … we’ve got a very serious situation facing us in this country, especially for the kids.”
Childhood cases are also exploding in Europe, with more than 500 kids hospitalised with Covid in England in the week ending December 26.
Statistics from the UK Office of National Statistics also show 117,000 children are living with symptoms of long Covid well after their initial infection has passed.
With children returning to school after the Christmas break as cases skyrocketing overseas, some teachers are turning to extreme measures to keep young students – and themselves – safe.
According to CNN, many are keeping classroom windows open during the harsh Northern Hemisphere winter to try and prevent transmission, with educators “frequently checking carbon dioxide monitors while delivering their lessons”.
Aussies divided over school plan
Australia so far hasn’t had anywhere near the level of childhood Covid cases and hospitalisations seen elsewhere, and multiple global studies, including Australian research, indicate transmission in schools tends to be lower or at least roughly equal to community transmission rates.
We have also become a world leader when it comes to our vaccination rate, with 94.7 per cent of people over the age of 16 have had at least one dose as of January 9.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly stressed that the vast majority of children were not at risk, claiming that “of the different variants we’ve seen, it (Omicron) has been much less severe in children”.
And a detailed study of data from the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network during the 2021 Delta outbreak revealed that at least one in five Covid-positive children experienced no symptoms, while just one in 85 were admitted to hospital for medical care and “more children were hospitalised for social reasons than for medical care”.
But the alarming situation overseas has been seen by some as a wake up call as the bitter debate over our school reopening plan rages on.
Australia’s federal, state and territory leaders will meet on Thursday to discuss a national approach to returning students to the classroom safely, after Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk sparked backlash by announcing schools in her state would push back their start dates by two weeks, from January 24 to February 7, to avoid the expected Omicron peak.
But 35 of Australia’s top medical experts, including former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth and Professor Catherine Bennett, have taken the extraordinary step of pleading with the government to send kids back to school as planned.
“In the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic we now have evidence that it is safe to allow schools to be open for face-to-face learning,” the group of experts wrote in an open letter to national cabinet.
“The national cabinet commitment to reopen schools is at risk, however, and needs to be reaffirmed by every jurisdiction, with measures taken to reassure Australian families that schools are safe to return.
“As such, we call upon all federal, state and territory governments to recommit to the return to in-person schooling without delay for term 1 2022.”
The letter also downplayed the health risk posed by Covid to children.
“Our Australian data confirms Covid-19 is a mild disease in children, that the few hospitalisations are short-lived, and that the overwhelming majority of children recover from this virus without adverse effect,” it reads.
Last week, the education union insisted the wellbeing of students and teachers needed to be prioritised in the reopening plan.
“There are major challenges coming towards schools across the country as a result of the Omicron wave of the pandemic,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe said.
“These include resourcing, occupational health and safety, the return to face-to-face learning, management of staff shortages and access to appropriate and consistent tests and testing protocols in the likely event of exposure to the virus.”
The union is calling on the government to grant priority access to RATs and PCR tests to teachers and to develop isolation protocols for staff shortages.
It comes as children aged between five and 11 became eligible for Covid vaccines on Monday ahead of the start of the school year – although parents immediately reported frustrating problems with the jab rollout due to supply issues, which saw many appointments cancelled.
– with NCA NewsWire