JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – There are now 11 pediatric COVID-19 patients at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, six of which are in Intensive Care.
“We are terrified. The past few weeks have brought tragedy we hoped we would never have to see,” said Dr. Myesa Emberesh, a pediatric oncologist/hematologist with the St. Jude Tri-Cities Affiliate Clinic. “We had the first immunocompromised child with COVID-19 in my clinic last week, and we fear more will come.”
28% of the patients Ballad is treating or has recently diagnosed with the virus are under the age of 18, and that number is expected to increase.
“The Tennessee Department of Health shared that Tennessee now has the highest rate of cases in children based on cumulative cases per 100,000 among the 48 states and two territories reporting data,” said Chief Infection Prevention Officer, Jamie Swift.
Those high numbers are creating concern for hospital and emergency room capacity.
“It has the potential to be devastating for any children who need emergency care and is met with an overburdened emergency room,” said. Dr. Emberesh. “That thought is terrifying to me and all of my colleagues who work with vulnerable children every day.”
The system is also concerned for those whose immune systems are already compromised.
“We do not want to see COVID-19 rip through the bodies of these children with cancer,” Dr. Emberesh said. “I do not want to see them gasping for breath or managing long-hauler symptoms on top of their adverse effects from chemotherapy.”
Those children already struggle during a typical cold and flu season.
“We know how difficult it is to keep those kids from catching even a common cold, and also we know any of those illnesses are just amplified when your natural immune system is weakened and not able to fight it,” said Niswonger CEO Lisa Carter.
Ballad is continuing to ask the public to wear masks and get the vaccine.
“These children did not ask to be sick. The children whose lives are being threatened with COVID often don’t have a choice to be vaccinated. That’s why they need us,” said Kate Strickland, the Clinical Manager with the St. Jude Tri-Cities Affiliate Clinic.
During the briefing, Strickland read a letter from the McClelland family, whose son is particularly at risk.
Gus McClelland was diagnosed with Leukemia in December of 2016 and was treated for three years after at St. Jude in the Tri-Cities.
“When Gus was in treatment, we often masked, and in doing so, we all kept him from catching lots of cruds, so we masked. You do these things without question when a life depends on it,” Strickland read.
“Our middle child caught COVID-19 his first week of school. He was one of two masking in a class of 21 in a school of thousands that are now shutting down halls left and right,” the letter continued to read. “Masking is a two-way street. It is most effective when everyone is on board. We entered panic mode in our house when COVID-19 arrived. We ran strict protocols and kept it from spreading. Our unfortunately learned skill set from being a cancer family proved helpful, but there was still frustration and anger.”
On the first day of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the McClellands issued a plea to try to keep the most vulnerable safe.
“If you walked in the halls of St. Jude, you would quickly see that masks are a lifeline,” read the letter. “They allow children to thrive and be engaged, they allow you to be connected to the outside world where things just don’t feel safe.”