COVID-19 or the flu? What parents need to know before sending kids to school

September 23, 2020

    NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — Tuesday marks the first day of fall, meaning the United States continues to inch closer to flu season in the midst of battling the coronavirus pandemic.

    The U.S. crossed a grim milestone of 200,000 coronavirus deaths throughout the country on Tuesday, and now experts are worrying about a possible “twindemic” with the upcoming flu season. 

    Parents are especially worried about children, who typically are more likely to catch and spread the flu every year. 

    So, how can parents tell the difference between COVID-19 and flu symptoms in their kids? 

    WCBS 880’s anchor Steve Scott spoke with Dr. Christina Johns, of PM Pediatrics, to find out what parents need to know. 

    Q: COVID-19 and flu symptoms can be pretty similar. How can parents tell the difference?

    A: You know, Steve, the honest answer is that, it's impossible to tell the difference between influenza and COVID-19. The symptoms are really – can be anyway – virtually identical, from fever to cough and runny nose and fatigue. They can really be very, very similar.

    Q: If your child is at home and feeling a little ill, how do you reconcile the chance that it's just a seasonal flu versus COVID-19? What's a parent to do?

    A: The first suggestion that I would make is to back up and get your flu shot, so that you can decrease the chance that you and your child will get the flu in the first place. But second of all, I would say look for some other symptoms that might be able – not perfect, but might be able to distinguish the two. They're less common, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea – those tend to be seen in children, more so with COVID-19 than influenza. Unfortunately, they can be seen in both and this is where clinical guidance from your health care professional is going to be very, very important this season so that we can make sure that we are getting the correct diagnosis in the right person at the right time.

    Q: I got my flu shot over the weekend. Are you recommending to parents that they get their kids vaccinated and how soon and how young?

    A: So children as young as six months old can get a flu vaccine and I recommend that you go ahead and do it right away. We like to say in pediatric: “Flu before boo.” And so that means, get your flu vaccine before Halloween. It is absolutely okay to get the flu shot now, especially for children, no need to wait. If it's available at either your pediatrician office or at local pharmacy, absolutely, okay to get. Just call beforehand, if you have a very young child, if you're going to go to a retail pharmacy and make sure that there isn't a lower age limit where they will vaccinate children.

    Q: And throw into the mix the common cold, how can we differentiate a cold from COVID-19 or the flu?

    A: Also a tricky one. There are plenty of viruses that have symptoms that mimic COVID-19 and influenza. I would say that in general the common cold doesn't tend to cause as high of a fever as influenza and as some cases of COVID-19 can cause. But they are shady characters and they can all look very similar.

    Q: Are you nervous at all about schools opening to in-person learning across the country, as they are in many places now?

    A: I think that if we are really able to keep on our best infection control behaviors, and that means really encouraging our kids to stay masked, to stay distanced, to hand hygiene regularly, trying not to gather in recess – I think that that's a can be a real challenge, but I know that many schools are opening across the country, have opened over the last several weeks to a month or so, and have been able to do it successfully. I think we also need to manage our own expectations. Is the system going to be perfect and are we going to be able to get through an entire school year with nobody getting COVID-19? I think that that would be too tall an order. We're seeing that already, so we've got to be nimble, we've got to be flexible, understand that things may change midway through the year, be comfortable with that, persist and be resilient. And I think we're going to be OK.

    Q: Now, we don't hear a lot about children dying of COVID-19, but they sure can spread the virus, right?

    A: They can indeed. Fortunately, for children, it does appear that they seem to, as a whole, be affected by COVID-19 less severely. That's not to say that children have not become critically ill and that there have not been some pediatric deaths due to this infection, that has indeed happened. There is plenty of data that shows that children can spread this virus so that it is certainly reasonable to expect that it is possible for them to spread the virus in school, if they attend school with the virus, so all the more reason – if your child is sick at all, be conservative this year and keep them home.

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