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Ohio Sees Uptick In COVID-19 Cases In Children

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The state of Ohio is suffering from a surge of COVID-19 cases in children. According to the Ohio Department of Health, over 1,600 patients under the age of 18 have been hospitalized. Nine children have died so far. Medical experts say they were expecting this kind of rise in cases with most schools back in session, but the challenge is compounded as kids are also bringing home the flu and the common cold. Dr. Adam Mezoff is the chief medical officer and pediatric gastroenterologist at Dayton Children's Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

ADAM MEZOFF: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Mezoff, can you describe what you're seeing in your hospital?

MEZOFF: We are essentially in the middle of a perfect storm. We have a high allergy season, giving a lot of upper-respiratory-type symptoms, which may confuse making an appropriate diagnosis. We are seeing respiratory viruses at levels we have never seen before at this time of year. Typically, those viruses occur in the middle of winter. On top of that, in the last six to eight weeks, we've seen a dramatic rise in the number of COVID-19 cases among children. And when children are sick or absent from school, they must be cared for by an adult. We're also seeing record numbers of our staff that have to take off work in order to help their children, which, of course, leaves us in the middle of one of the highest-volume times we've had with a large number of staff that have to be away from the institutions.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh. I mean, that must be so difficult. Can you break it down for me, though - I mean, which age group are you seeing the most?

MEZOFF: We are seeing COVID patients of varying ages. In the last six weeks, we've gone from averaging approximately one COVID patient per day to a peak of about 16 or 17. They are coming in very sick. Some of them - fortunately, not a lot of them - end up on ventilators or assisted breathing support, which is very troubling.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are these children who, if they're over 12 years old, have not been vaccinated and, if they're under 12 years old, are with families who might be unvaccinated? Or are these kids getting infected, perhaps, in school settings?

MEZOFF: At this point - I believe this is accurate - I don't think there has been a patient in any of our hospitals with COVID that has been vaccinated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know spikes in hospitalization numbers follow spikes in new cases. Almost 60% of Ohio students are now in districts where they are required to wear masks. Only a few weeks ago, it was 35%. Do you think that that might have an impact on what we'll see?

MEZOFF: I believe strongly that it will, and there's some very recent data that really suggests that that will be true. The MMWR, which is the report that the CDC furnishes, had two reports in it about the spread of COVID in children in schools. If you have a mask mandate, you have half the COVID rate that a school that is unmasked. Another study showed that if you masked from the beginning of school, you had an 8.4% chance of having an outbreak, if you masked after school started, a 32.5% chance. And if you have continued without a mask, 59.2% of these schools have had an outbreak of COVID in their schools.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask you a personal question? Because, as you know, masks and vaccination have become political. There's a lot of people who don't want to do it for various reasons. How does that affect the morale of yourself and your staff?

MEZOFF: We try and be understanding, and it can be frustrating. But we understand that there is a certain population of folks who believe what they believe, and sometimes it's tied to political beliefs. There are some folks who are genuinely concerned and scared. And so what we have tried to do is meet people where they are. We have tried to furnish all the information we can in all sorts of venues, in all sorts of modalities in any way that we can. Many of us have have personally spoken with schools, the public health department. I was on a I call throughout the state of Ohio with our other six children's hospitals. We were speaking to the school boards of the state, again encouraging them to make a decision to put children first, make them safe, let them stay in school, let them mask. Masks do not harm children. So we, as adults, need to allow our children to be safe and to do what they can do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you have the story, maybe, of one kid who came in and maybe - that you could illuminate?

MEZOFF: Well, let me tell you the story that I've had with more than one of the children that I have taken care of from the GI standpoint. They've come in, and I have had to find out at their visit that they lost a parent to COVID. I think that's a devastating thing for an 8-, a 9-, a 12-year-old to have happen. It is heartbreaking on many levels, one of which is, while I don't know that we could prevent all of it, I have to believe that we could've done a better job in preventing a lot of it if we could've been more united in our approach to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN BAUDIN CLARKE'S "PLUS TOT")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Dr. Adam Mezoff. He is the chief medical officer and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Dayton Children's Hospital in Dayton, Ohio. Thank you very much.

MEZOFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN BAUDIN CLARKE'S "PLUS TOT")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I think this next bit is really important to hear. After our interview, Dr. Mezoff wanted to add one last thought for parents who might be worried about overwhelmed health care workers being disheartened by the resistance to masking and vaccines.

MEZOFF: People who do what I do at hospitals around the country won't quit and won't give up. And it may take forever, but we feel like we have an obligation to children. I mean, I went into this 40 years ago because that's what I care about - is the welfare of children. So no matter what the resistance, no matter what we face - I've had all my hate mail and all those other things, but none of that dissuades any of us from the fact that we know we're doing what's best for children. That's why we started doing what we do. This will get better. I have always told people I'm a reasonably bright guy, but what my bigger claim to fame is I'm one of the more stubborn people you'll ever meet. And we are not going to stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN BAUDIN CLARKE'S "PLUS TOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.