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Mayo physicians talk back-to-school health and safety amidst continuing health concerns

Leader-Telegram - 8/7/2022

Aug. 8—EAU CLAIRE — With two months of summer already in the rearview, Mayo Clinic Health System wants to ensure a safe and seamless transition for area students this back-to-school season.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, growing monkeypox outbreak and national mental health crisis in the forefront of parents' minds, this can be an intimidating time of year for many.

Mayo physicians Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse and Dr. David Soma agree that there are several key steps that can be taken to help alleviate the stress of starting a new school year for both students and parents.

"Ensuring that your child is up-to-date on their routine vaccinations is one of the things that I'd put very high on your checklist for going back to school this year," Rajapakse, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said during a Friday news conference. She noted that many vaccines, including those for COVID-19, take a few weeks to be effective and should therefore be completed weeks before school starts.

"That's going to be really what keeps our classrooms safe this fall going into the new school year," Rajapakse said.

The COVID-19 vaccine is now available to children as young as 6 months old. Rajapakse and Soma, a pediatrician and sports medicine specialist, both urge parents to have their children vaccinated against the virus.

Fall also marks the "notoriously unpredictable" return of influenza season. Rajapakse said immunity against the flu comes in two ways: through getting the flu or through the vaccine. COVID-19 precautions have helped lower flu transmission rates over the past few years, but, as those safety measures decrease, the flu vaccine will be especially important this fall.

According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine in March, routine pediatric vaccination rates have dropped globally over the course of the pandemic. Soma attributed this drop to an increase in uncertainty around vaccines in general. He and Rajapakse said these vaccines are vital in maintaining herd immunity and preventing any future outbreaks of preventable diseases.

COVID-19 and the flu aside, monkeypox now presents yet another virus for parents to contend with. Monkeypox is distinguished by a sudden rash that spreads through close physical contact. The current outbreak was declared a public health emergency by the White House last week. Rajapakse said the current risk of children contracting monkeypox is low, citing only five pediatric cases in the U.S. as of Friday.

"This is an evolving situation, so we need to watch closely what happens," Rajapakse said. "There are efforts underway to try and get this exponential rise we're seeing in cases under control through mechanisms like vaccination."

Regardless, the physicians said parents should keep an eye out for any unexplained rashes on their children — particularly rashes that are accompanied by flu-like symptoms — and seek out a primary care provider with questions or concerns. Monkeypox cases are generally mild and treatable, but children under the age of 8 are more susceptible to severe illness, Rajapakse said.

As students prepare for another school year amidst an ever-shifting pandemic, Rajapakse said it's best for parents to be open and honest with their children.

How you talk about what's going on in the world with your child should be tailored to their age and developmental stage, she said.

In order to best communicate with a child, Rajapakse explained, parents should adhere to three basic principles: be aware of what's happening, be open to answering questions, and model the practice of seeking answers to unknown questions from reputable sources.

"Children are more aware of things sometimes than we give them credit for," Rajapakse said. "They're seeing things in the media, they're hearing things from friends, they're looking at things on social media. So, really having an open, two-way conversation and addressing their questions to the best of your ability is really important."

Soma agreed, adding: "Kids are in-tune. They know what's going on in the world around them, but every kid has got different degrees of worries and concerns. We have some kids that go through life and take it as it comes to them, and they don't have a lot of questions or worries. And I think, for them, you can provide some education. But I don't think you need to necessarily create worries that don't exist."

Reestablishing healthy sleeping patterns and daily routines is also vital for returning to school, Soma said. Children should be prepared mentally and physically before returning to class and sports in order to combat burnout, injury or back-to-school jitters.

Soma encourages parents to prepare their children for the return to school by talking through their worries with them and by reminding them of whatever they might find exciting. For younger students, Soma suggested parents bring their child to the school ahead of the time, interact with other students or parents, or meet with their teacher.

"I know that school the past few years for many has been a little bit disrupted by the COVID pandemic, and I think that hopefully this year can be closer to a school year that we're used to," Soma said.


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