Essentia Health's Dr. Bertha Ayi shares tips for a safe school year amid lingering COVID concerns
The new school year is officially upon us, and after two-plus years of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, students are excited to have a relatively normal start. Still, Essentia Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Bertha Ayi warns students and parents not to let their guard down and encourages them to remain vigilant about their health.
“We are starting to see a slight uptick in COVID cases,” cautions Dr. Ayi. “We should all still take COVID seriously. It’s not gone, even if the guidelines have become less stringent.”
Calling vaccines one of the most effective tools to prevent infectious diseases like COVID, Dr. Ayi says, “Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is available to children 6 months and up, I encourage every child to get this vaccine, along with the other vaccines recommended for their age group.”
Unfortunately, well-child visits and immunizations were disrupted by the pandemic, with many children falling behind on vaccination schedules. A report published by the World Health Organization and United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund summarized the drop as “the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in approximately 30 years.”
Dr. Ayi urges parents to get their kids back on track, warning that diseases once eradicated here in the United States could make a comeback if too many children remain behind on their vaccination schedules.
“This resurgence of polio in the New York City area serves as an example of what can happen when enough people don’t get vaccinated,” she says.
In addition to receiving the recommended vaccinations, Dr. Ayi says that masking can make a pronounced difference when coming into close contact with others.
“When COVID-19 came around and everyone was masking, the incidence of influenza and other respiratory diseases plummeted tremendously,” she said. “It means that after all these years of struggling with different respiratory illnesses, especially in the wintertime, apparently all we had to do was wear masks so those people with coughs and colds wouldn’t transmit them as much.”
Dr. Ayi also recommends that parents keep tabs on the mental health of their children.
“The pandemic taught us the importance of mental health,” she said. “Parents should listen to their children and children should speak up if they feel that something is becoming stressful or impairing their learning process.”
She warns that too much stress and anxiety can weaken the immune system, making a child more susceptible to infectious diseases.
“I cannot state enough just how important maintaining good mental health is to preventing infection, and this usually begins at home,” Dr Ayi said. “Parents should make sure their child has a happy home environment. They should ensure their child is getting enough sleep and healthy food because the lack of either can also lead to a weakened immune system.”
Lastly, Dr. Ayi says that educating our children on infectious diseases and how to prevent them can go a long way.
“Parents and teachers should remind kids about the importance of regular handwashing, which has always been an important piece of infection control,” she says.
And while the emergence of monkeypox poses little threat to children in grade school, it could potentially become more of a problem for college kids living in close quarters. Dr. Ayi encourages parents to educate their kids on this disease, especially since the monkeypox vaccine is not yet widely available.
If you are the parent of a child returning to the classroom or campus this fall, please visit our vaccination page to learn more about how to protect your child from preventable diseases.
Also, be aware of the different quarantine guidelines following COVID infection or exposure. If your child gets COVID, be sure they isolate appropriately and are healthy and symptom-free before returning to the classroom.