Maharashtra is opening schools from the next week, but I would recommend that children continue online classes till the number of cases declines significantly. Right now, we might be witnessing a flattening of the Covid-19 third wave curve.
The omicron variant of the virus does cause mild infection among children, in fact, paediatricians have seen a steep rise in the number of kids getting infected during the third wave compared to the last two years.
In the present scenario, where schools were shut but everything else was open, 80 per cent of fevers I have treated in Hyderabad are Covid cases. I have talked to my fellow practitioners in other cities including Mumbai and Bengaluru, and the situation is the same there. This rate of infectivity is alarmingly high. In the previous two years, the infectivity rate was just 10-20 per cent. If the schools reopen at this juncture, we are going to be flooded with cases.
The rate of hospital admissions for Covid positive children is only 1 per cent right now across India. With schools reopening, it is estimated that the rate of infection can go up by 100 per cent. For example, if the number of cases is 1 lakh with schools closed, it will increase to 2-3 lakh once they reopen. So even if the denominator is 1 per cent, the number of children getting admitted will see a sharp increase.
This will add to the burden on healthcare infrastructure because even if children are not admitted to hospitals, they can become super spreaders. It will make elders living with co-morbidities more susceptible to infections. There are children too with co-morbidities such as asthma and heart conditions and they might get severely infected.
If an adult gets a mild infection, she can isolate herself and take medications. However, with children, parents are more likely to visit doctors. This adds another layer of burden as paediatricians are fewer in number. Doctor clinics are likely to be overcrowded which can become hubs of infection. Moreover, parents will be additionally stressed with the caregiving and might need to take days off work. Thus, the reopening of schools will stress households further.
So we recommend that schools can reopen when the cases go on a decline, not when they are plateauing. They can begin classes with the 15-18 age group who would be vaccinated by that time and then call the younger children.
The writer, a consultant paediatrician, is the medical director of Ankura Hospital for Women and Children in Hyderabad.
(As told to Kakoli Mukherjee)