If you have a baby or other young children at home, you may be concerned about the latest rapid surge in COVID-19 cases, driven largely by the newly discovered Omicron variant.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only announced the first U.S. case of the Omicron variant on December 1, it has now taken hold as the dominant strain in the country, the CDC says, already accounting for about 73 percent of total COVID-19 cases as of December 20.
“It’s the most infectious virus we’ve seen since measles, with rates doubling every 48 to 72 hours,” says Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious diseases consultant at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) field hospitals nationwide and a member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
While Omicron infections are typically milder in kids and babies, there is no doubt that this strain will impact them too, he adds. As of mid-December, almost 7.4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), with nearly 170,000 of those cases added in one week alone.
“While the complication rate in kids is relatively low, we’re still expecting a substantial increase in hospitalizations given the sheer number of babies and children who will get it,” says Robert McGregor, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Akron Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio.
Given the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t yet authorized for use in children under the age of 5, it’s understandable to worry about how the virus — and especially the Omicron variant — might affect your little ones. Here’s what we know right now.
What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant in children?
The CDC states that COVID-19 symptoms can include:
- Shortness of breath
- New loss of taste or smell
- Muscle or body aches
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
In general, you can expect symptoms of the Omicron variant to be very similar to those of the Delta variant, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
An ongoing COVID symptom study in the United Kingdom found no clear differences between the early symptoms associated with the Delta and Omicron variants. However, people who tested positive for COVID-19 in an area with a higher prevalence of the Omicron strain reported these five symptoms most often:
- Runny nose
- Fatigue (either mild or severe)
- Sore throat
Since these symptoms mimic those of the common cold, if your children experience any of them, you should get them tested for COVID-19 and isolate them until you get results, Dr. McGregor advises.
Does the Omicron variant cause more severe disease in children?
Data on the Omicron variant is still emerging. Reports from South Africa, where the strain was first identified, suggest that hospitalization rates for children infected with Omicron are higher than during previous waves. That doesn’t necessarily mean that little ones everywhere are more vulnerable to the Omicron strain than they have been to other variants, however.
“Children there may have had lower rates of previous coronavirus infection and vaccination than adults, so they have less pre-existing immunity,” says Dr. McGregor.
However, experts do know that the Omicron variant is highly contagious. Preliminary research has suggested that Omicron is more infectious than both the original COVID-19 virus and the Delta variant.
“The more contagious a virus is, the more likely it will spread,” Dr. Fernando says. “If more children are infected with the Omicron variant, then more will develop severe illness.”
In addition, since a pediatric COVID-19 vaccine was only approved for U.S. children in the 5-to-11 age group in November and some parents have been waiting to get their kids vaccinated, about 20 percent of kids in that group (or 5.6 million U.S. children ages 5-11) had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose as of December 15, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) vaccination in children trends report. About 5 percent of kids in that category were fully vaccinated as of early December.
“We know that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re more vulnerable to infection, and to severe illness,” Dr. Schaffner explains.
How can you protect your children from the Omicron variant?
There are a few steps you can take to help keep your family safe from COVID-19, including the Omicron variant:
Get vaccinated — and get your kids vaccinated if they’re eligible
Children under 5 aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but you can help protect them by being fully vaccinated yourself, Dr. Schaffner says. If your child is age 5 or older, get them vaccinated.
“We know parents aren’t rushing to do so, but they’re one of the best protections we have against the disease,” he adds. While it’s true that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may not always prevent infection, they do seem protective against severe disease, Dr. Schaffner notes.
Dr. McGregor agrees: “Anecdotally, all the pediatric patients being admitted to our hospital with complications from COVID-19 are unvaccinated,” he says.
Adults and children ages 2 and up should wear masks in public, especially indoors and around other people who are not in their household.
If your children will tolerate surgical masks — the best ones are N95 and KF94 masks — then those offer better protection than simple cloth ones, says John Swartzberg, M.D., clinical professor emeritus in the division of infectious diseases & vaccinology at the University of California Berkeley.
If they won’t, opt for cloth masks that have layers. “The best protection is a surgical mask with a cloth one over it, but that may be hard for many kids to wear for longer periods of time,” notes Dr. Swartzberg.
Be mindful of indoor settings
Crowded indoor spaces and those that do not have good air circulation are especially risky.
“Over the next four to six weeks, it’s a good idea to minimize indoor public places as much as possible,” Dr. Schaffner advises. “Watch a movie at home instead of going to a movie theater, and spend time at an outdoor park instead of inside a children’s museum or play area.”
If you plan to spend time with anyone outside your household unmasked — like at a holiday gathering with grandparents — then rapid testing of all guests the day of the event is a must, Dr. Schaffner says. Even if you do that and every test comes back negative, it’s still a good idea to wear masks if not everyone in the group is fully vaccinated and open windows if possible. Better yet, take the party outside and stick to outdoor gatherings in general if you can.
Avoid nonessential travel
Given Omicron’s rapid spread, if you can put off travel plans right now, do so, Dr. Fernando says. If you must travel with little ones, take preventative measures such as wearing a mask (for those ages 2 and up) on public transportation and when in indoor settings, and getting tested before and after traveling.
Practice good hand hygiene
The whole family should be in the habit of washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place, after coughing or sneezing, and before and after caring for someone who is sick.
If soap and water aren’t available, adults can use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol; babies and toddlers should not use hand sanitizer.
Follow social distancing guidelines
Since some people without symptoms may be able to spread the virus, stay at least 6 feet (about two arm lengths) from other people, especially if your children are too young to get vaccinated.