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RI HEALTH

‘It feels like everyone has COVID:’ A record number of kids in Rhode Island are testing positive

“You can almost time it,” one pediatrician told the Globe. “Five days since a family gathering and the kids start getting sick with COVID”

Clinical nurse manager Marlene Reidl, left, chats with 18-year old Ousainou Faal of Providence as he prepares to get his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.Matthew Healey/Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Like clockwork, Dr. Chris Merritt says, he is being inundated with pediatric patients with COVID-19.

It’s been less than two weeks since families gathered with loved ones for Christmas and just days since New Year’s Eve celebrations kicked off 2022.

“It starts after five days,” Merritt told the Globe in an interview Wednesday. He’s a pediatric emergency medicine specialist and professor at The Alpert Medical School of Brown University. “You can almost time it. Five days since a family gathering and the kids start getting sick with COVID.”

The hospitals, including the emergency department of the one in which Merritt works, are also short-staffed. Those who are still at work are exhausted while dealing with this wave of infections. There’s been a great exodus in the industry, and the highly experienced health care workers caring for Rhode Island’s children are getting burnt out and bowing out of the industry. Like many at the hospital, Merritt was called in to work at the emergency department on his day off this week.

On Wednesday, Rhode Island reported nearly 1,200 new COVID-19 cases among the 516 schools that are holding classes in-person, compared to 50 new cases among 221 schools that are in remote learning this week.

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But from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Rhode Island reported more than 4,600 cases among residents age 18 and younger — the most this age group has seen.

“It’s all over the place. It feels like everyone has COVID right now,” said Merritt.

And it’s not just in Rhode Island. About 672 children with COVID-19 were admitted into a hospital each day during last week, which is the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to recently released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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This wave is coming amid the highly contagious Omicron variant, and returning to school after a holiday break this January has become more complicated as many are reporting that it’s taking days to get their test results back.

To prevent an outbreak, some individual schools have already opted to move to distance learning, including Johnston High School, Blackstone Academy, Blackstone Valley Prep, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute, Veterans and Winman Middle Schools in Warwick, and Achievement First, according to state education department spokesman Victor Morente. Providence Public Schools chose to stagger students’ return to school this week.

On Wednesday afternoon, Barrington High School sent an email to students and parents that said it would be transitioning to remote learning starting Thursday and won’t return to in-person learning until Jan. 11. Superintendent Michael Messore credited the move due to “a high number of COVID cases” within the school since returning from the holiday break.

Coventry High School had 43 staff absences, including four nurses, and more than 400 students absent on Wednesday. The school said in an email to families that afternoon that would move to distance learning for the rest of the week.

And despite a much lower number of cases among kids in schools that have gone remote, Morente confirmed the state is “not planning to shift all Rhode Island schools to distance learning.”

Pediatric patients, Merritt said, aren’t getting as sick as adults and elderly patients from COVID-19. When infected, they have milder illness on average, but then will transmit the virus to more vulnerable people in their household and other close contacts. Around the holidays, that includes elderly grandparents who are at risk of complications.

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The debate over in-person and remote learning amid this latest wave is complicated, said Merritt. He said many parents can’t take time off from work to stay at home with their kids and not all families have the same access to technology. And the ramifications of social isolation could have a long-term impact on young kids, he said.

“But there are also kids that are at risk. They could be immunocompromised, have chronic illnesses, or a respiratory illnesses. So while we haven’t seen as many pediatric patients in intensive care with COVID, contracting the virus can be a serious trigger for those who have severe asthma or other lung issues,” said Merritt.

According to the CDC, about 1,045 children younger than 18 have died from COVID-19. In Rhode Island, less than 10 children under 18 died from COVID-19, according to data provided by the state health department.

And while most kids may have mild symptoms when they test positive, the long-term effects are dangerously unknown, he said.

“Long COVID in children is one example. I’d be concerned about neuro-developmental effects in children in particular,” said Merritt.

Outside of the walls of the hospital, access to COVID-19 testing and getting timely results remain an issue across the state, but particularly in high-density communities.

At one testing site in East Providence on Wednesday, a pregnant mother stood outside in a testing line for an hour and a half in freezing temperatures. The clinic for Providence Public Schools tested 1,755 students, family and staff at Providence Career & Technical Academy and had a test positive rate of 14 percent on Wednesday. Others in Rhode Island continue to report long turnaround times for results.

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“People are still coming to the emergency department because it’s the only place they can find a test in order to go to school or return their child to day care. If they can’t find a test, then those kids can’t return to normal life and parents can’t go to work,” said Merritt. “This isn’t just a COVID problem. This is a socio-economic problem and it’s doubling down on the most vulnerable in this state.”



Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.