JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health is now tracking pediatric COVID-19 patients in the system’s COVID-19 “score card” as the delta variant is posing a much bigger threat to children than other strains.
Currently, Niswonger Children’s Hospital is treating three children with the virus – two of which are on ventilators. That’s one more than just two days ago
“Both of these patients are struggling and fighting for their lives and I do not say that lightly,” said Dr. Josh Henry, the medical director for the PICU at Niswonger. “Both of these patients are incredibly ill and we are doing everything we can but they are still going to struggle and it is going to be a long struggle for them.”
22% of the positive cases in the Tri-Cities are children under the age of 18.
“If your child is going back to school this week, they need to be in a mask. Ballad Health unequivocally supports universal masking for children going back to school,” said Dr. Patricia Chambers, Niswonger’s chief medical officer. “We support vaccination for every child and every adult 12 and over unless for some reason you have a direct contraindication to getting the vaccine.”
The cases are so severe, especially with the delta variant, more children are being placed on ventilators.
“The scariest part of all of this is the fact that these children are requiring ventilators. These children are no longer able to breathe effectively and maintain the proper gasses in their blood that they should,” Henry said. “An intubation is not a one-time procedure. It is the beginning of a group of procedures and at that point, your child is now on life support. If I take that ventilator away, they will die.”
Henry says the process of incubating a child is tragic for all involved.
“Through this procedure, I have to take children who are struggling and they are panicking because they cannot breathe…I have to give them medicine so that they have no idea what is going on. I have to give them medicine so they cannot move and they will not be able to move so that I can take a large airway tube and place it into their lungs and into their mouth,” said Henry. “I often have to place a tube through their mouth and to their stomach so I can feed them. I often have to put large IVs into either their neck or their groin so that I can give them the medicine that they need safely. I even have to put lines into arteries so that I can monitor their blood pressure and the gasses in their blood accurately.”
Those patients typically rely on the ventilator for five to seven days according to Henry.
“I have to buy your body time to fight the virus and get better. There’s not much I can do other than that,” he said. “Your body will heal itself but it’s going to take time to fight the virus and get better. There’s not much I can do other than that. Your body will heal itself but it’s going to take time.”
The children’s hospital is facing staffing shortages and there are fears of a lack of capacity since many hospitals across the country are facing the same issues.
“There’s no place for patients to go. As always, we will dig deep and we will find a way to take care of your kids, but I’m telling you that you need to get masked, you need to get vaccinated, you need to vaccinate your kids,” said Chambers. “We don’t want to have to decide which child gets the nursing care because we only have a limited quantity of nurses and they’re already working beyond what we usually ask of a nurse.”
However, there is a looming fear that there might not be enough pediatric ventilators to go around.
“At some point, there is an end to the resources. In the past, we’ve had to flex upon our number of ventilators, if we have to do that we’re going to rent ventilators,” said Chambers. “We have to decide who gets one, we don’t want to get to that place. We don’t want to have to decide which child gets resources because every single child is precious.”
Another concern of Niswonger leaders: the long-term impacts of COVID-19, especially over the next three to ten years.
“Not all children will recover and even those who do not succumb to COVID-19 can have long-term consequences even with mild disease,” Chambers said. “Some kids develop COVID-19 and go on to develop MISC, which is an inflammatory response. Those kids can have a long road to recovery. “
Children are also susceptible to “long-haul” symptoms.
“Some kids get COVID-19 and recover and then when they go back into their normal life,” Chambers explained. “When they want to return to sports, they’re having shortness of breath and brain fog and other symptoms that make it very difficult for them to return to their full level of activity.”
The health system is making a plea to parents, families, and school systems to mask up and avoid large gatherings.
“We have to do what we can. I know it’s inconvenient, I know it’s not fun and I know it’s not what we want to do but I also don’t want to be intubating your child and putting lines in your child to keep your child alive,” Henry said.
Another plea from the system is for families to become vaccinated.
“We have to do something to protect the kids who cannot get the vaccine yet which is the 12 and under crowd,” Chambers said. “They are getting infected with the virus, they are spreading the virus and they are getting sick and critically ill from the virus.”