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The importance of children's hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic

The importance of children's hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic
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Early reports of the COVID-19 pandemic, created an initial widespread impression that children were not severely affected by the virus. This understanding was framed by data from China which showed that less than 1 percent of cases occurred in children younger than 10. However, this consensus is now being challenged by new reports, including one in the New England Journal of Medicine from Wuhan Children's Hospital, which found a pediatric infection rate of more than 12 percent.

Additional investigations are calling into question the early conclusions about the low impact on children and spotlighting the importance of pediatric experts. They are focused on the virus's impact on children and the broader impact of the pandemic on children's health. 

In Washington, D.C., children are experiencing more of a medical impact from the COVID-19 virus than predicted from the preexisting data, including much higher rates of infection. Children's National Hospital publicly released the latest data about its COVID-19 patients. Of over 230 patients, 59 required hospitalization, and 14 required critical care level hospitalization. An especially notable finding was that 40 percent of the hospitalized patients and 25 percent of the critically ill patients had no underlying chronic medical conditions. 

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Children's National has also been supporting the needs of community pediatricians to provide COVID-19 testing by running a pediatric drive-up specimen collection site at Trinity Washington University. To date, more than 1000 children from Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have been tested. Each week, we have seen the rate of an infection increase.

Last week, over 30 percent tested positive, which suggests widespread community transmission in our pediatric population. Already dozens of our scientists have begun to organize studies to uncover why the rate of infection is going up. Research that is conducted regarding the disease in children will advance our understanding of the virus and inform potential treatment options that could benefit both children and adults. 

The pandemic's impact on children's health goes far beyond the virus. With millions of children out of school and daycare, home-based unintentional injuries are on the rise. Pediatric experts are tracking increases in mental and behavioral health issues as well as increased incidences of child abuse.

Children's National is working with primary care physicians, mental health providers, and schools to provide extra support to families during this time, including virtual wellness groups, web-based resources, and online guides to local services. We are working with health and community partners across the Washington D.C. region and with government leaders to increase access to mental health services and eliminate barriers to mental health telemedicine services.

We see it as our duty to uncover and spotlight these emerging trends while continuing to serve the families who rely upon Children's National for everything from surgery for complex newborn heart conditions, to childhood cancer treatment, to emergency room care. The need for those services has not ended.

As this crisis continues, we will proudly continue to serve the patients in our care while working to advance our understanding of the COVID-19 virus in children in general. Just as importantly, we will observe for the downstream effects on childhood development and will work to address these challenges.

Kurt Newman, M.D., is the president and chief executive officer of Children's National Hospital.