Reconsider group playdates, parents. Think twice about letting your kids play soccer with friends. Avoid the local playground jungle gyms and monkey bars.
“There is evidence corona viruses can live on plastic and metal for up to nine days,” said Dr. Asaf Bitton, a primary care physician and executive director of Ariadne Labs, a joint health system innovation center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“This is not a snow day,” Bitton said, referencing an article he wrote by the same name. “We’re in serious, almost unprecedented times right now.”
It’s time for parents to carefully consider the types of activities they do with their children and how they allow play with other kids, experts say, without alarming their children in the process.
“We’re not asking people to be hermits, go home, lock the door and crawl under the bed,” said Vanderbilt infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner. “We’re being asked to do whatever we can to spread some distance between us.”
Social distancing applies to kids too
For the first time ever, Americans are being called upon to practice “social distancing,” which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines as “remaining out of places where people meet or gather,” and “avoiding local public transportation.” That includes buses, subways, taxis and rideshares (like carpools, Uber and Lyft).
It also means maintaining a distance of six feet (or two meters) from others. Yes, that means you’re supposed to be keeping kids six feet apart, not piling them in a car to go the local movie just because they’re out of school.
“Children were sent home, businesses closed, and people began working from home,” Bitton said, “so they would not be exposed to other children and adults who might unknowingly have the coronavirus.
“When people want to have the kids play with each other or otherwise normally interact, it sort of defeats the purpose,” Britton said. “So frankly I wanted to send out a bit of an alarm … because going out and pretending that life is as usual certainly can’t be recommended at this time.”
Most children are not in danger
Now let’s quickly say – and remind your children – that such advice is not because your kids are in serious danger from the virus – unless, of course, your child is immunocompromised from cancer or another serious medical condition.
In fact, healthy children “are at reduced risk” of serious illness or death from coronavirus, said Dr. Tom Frieden, the former CDC director, in an op-ed for CNN.
“One bit of good news is that, unlike with the flu, children up to at least age 18 appear to not become very ill with Covid-19. They can become infected, but fatal infection appears to be extremely rare,” Frieden wrote.
That’s “a striking mystery about this virus,” Schaffner said, one that experts are struggling to understand. One possibility is that it could be like mumps and chicken pox. In both cases,the older you are when you get it, the worse the symptoms.
Another is that a child’s immune system is not as developed as an adult, so the novel conoravirus doesn’t trip it into “hyperdrive” as it appears to do in the most affected elderly patients.
Children are ‘spreaders’
If the vast majority of children are not in danger, why such caution? Because we don’t yet know how infectious children under age 20 may be, said Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, in a press briefing Saturday.
“Are they a group that is potentially asymptomatic and spreading the virus?” Birx asked, as she discussed the need to protect the most vulnerable to the virus – the elderly or anyone with an underlying chronic disease such as diabetes.
“Children are the great spreaders in our communities – I like to joke they have the distribution franchise,” said Schaffner, a professor of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.
“With influenza, which is a crude analogy to coronavirus, children produce very large amounts of virus, and shed this large amount for quite a long period of time,” he said.
Will children turn out to be major carriers of this new disease? We don’t know and may not know until after many others have been infected and died.
So at this time, it’s best for the most vulnerable in our society if we act as though children may be key transmitters of coronavirus, and do our best to help everyone stay safe.
There’s no way you can keep your child away from everyone, of course, so experts suggest parents plan carefully.
Schaffner isn’t as concerned about small playdates of two or three children, as long as you know the child and family and can be assured they have had no cold or flu symptoms (early coronavirus symptoms often appear like colds or flu).
Bitton disagrees. He worries the symptoms may be too mild to detect.
“We know that kids touch each other and rough house with each other. And so we really want to be mindful about reducing that interpersonal contact and any potential spread,” Bitton said.
If you do consider a playdate, experts say, send the kids to play outside in the yard, where there are fewer places for germs to collect. Make sure everyone washes their hands the right way (scrubbing for 20 seconds) or uses hand sanitizer (also scrub hands when using it).
If possible, consider individual outdoor activities like biking or hiking where sports equipment isn’t shared and it’s easier to keep a good distance from each other.
Playing outdoors is an excellent activity for the whole family – it reduces stress, gives us the sunlight and exercise we need, and improves sleep – all things that fight off illness (of any sort).
“Why not try family soccer games instead of soccer games with 12 kids?” Bitton suggests.
If the playdate is inside, use bleach wipes on every surface you can think of that kids will touch – wall and light switches and doorknobs, toilet handles and lids, all sorts of toys, and of course any video game controllers or other devices, including TV remotes. Wipe them all again after the other kids have gone home.
What about going out to restaurants? Movie theaters? Grocery stores?
“Going to the movies? Ah, not such a good idea. Stay home,” Schaffner said. “We all have to eat,” of course, but he suggests picking an unpopular time to visit the grocery store (his son goes at 2 a.m. when it’s a ghost town).
He’s not as worried about restaurants that aren’t packed with people (and there’s no connection between food and the coronavirus). But if you want to be extra careful, consider to-go or delivery.
But don’t stop using your local favorite businesses – you want to keep them operating as they are a community resource, Bitton says.
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In the end, experts say, it all comes down to what you – as a parent – are comfortable with when it comes to risk. And keep in mind that this is the current advice. It could change tomorrow as we learn more about this viral invader.
But as you ponder how to navigate these next few weeks at home with your kids, keep in mind that the impact of your decisions affect more than your family.
As CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently said on Anderson 360: “We have an obligation to each other, I think, more than ever before. How I behave affects you and how you behave affects me.”