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The doctor is in!

Why it’s important – and safe – to go to the pediatrician during the pandemic

By Lily J. Lou, MD, FAAP

Our world has been utterly transformed by COVID-19 but we are still here, trying to find a new normal and live our lives as best we can in the face of the pandemic. We’ve put a lot of things on hold for the past few months, but it’s important to get back to some essential activities that keep us healthy and safe. Keeping up with your child’s pediatrician is one of those.

Wouldn’t it be crazy to go to the doctor now, with COVID-19 going around?

Absolutely not! Pediatricians do many things to keep our kids healthy and safe. One of the things that comes immediately to mind is staying up to date on immunizations. We see what COVID-19 — an infectious disease without a vaccine or good treatments — is doing to our country; the last thing we want is an epidemic of measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, or any of the other terrible diseases for which we do have vaccines, just because we’ve fallen behind in going to the doctor to keep on schedule with routine immunizations!

During the pandemic, Alaska has seen an alarming decrease in the number of vaccines given. We’re improving a little, but we need to correct this trend or we’ll lose the herd immunity that has protected us for many years. It will also be crucial that we get our flu vaccines this fall — who knows what the combination of COVID-19 and influenza will do!

Pediatricians also screen for many conditions that are treatable if they’re picked up early. These can include physical or mental health issues. Routine screening is important in navigating the process of normal growth and development; it also picks up on children falling behind in key milestones. Children are amazingly resilient and generally respond well to treatments that are started before problems progress too far. Developmental delays can often be ameliorated with early intervention.

What are pediatricians doing to make sure it’s safe to come into the office?

Pediatricians have put a lot of thought into how they can minimize risks of exposure so children can be seen in ways that keep them safe. Some now have separate entrances for sick and well patients. Some only see well patients in the mornings and ill children in the afternoons. Some practices have designated a few doctors and staff to only take care of well visits and immunizations, while different ones care for children with symptoms. Some pediatricians will come out to your car to provide care to maintain safe physical distancing. Most offices have options for telehealth visits, but some needs (like immunizations) do require being seen in person. Tips are available to get the most out of a telehealth visit.

Call your own pediatrician to see how things have changed and to make an appointment to keep up with important health care for your children.

A few words about masks

Wearing a cloth mask has been shown to be protective — as part of a community bundle that also includes physical distancing, good hand hygiene, avoiding crowds, and a system of testing and contact tracing that allows focused isolation rather than universal stay-at-home orders. This is the way we can start to resume some of our interactions.

Masks are generally safe, except for very few exceptions. They do not decrease oxygen levels or cause your carbon dioxide levels to go up. Children under 2 years of age should not be masked. Nor should people with severe baseline breathing problems, those with developmental disabilities that make them unable to tolerate a mask or remove it in an emergency, or some with severe sensory intolerances. Most children with asthma can safely wear a mask unless their disease is severe, requiring frequent emergency treatment or hospitalization. COVID-19 and mask wearing are good reminders of the importance of getting asthma under control — another reason to visit the pediatrician.

Masks with fun designs, practicing wearing a mask properly, education about mask effectiveness and safety, and role modeling by parents and other respected adults will help children with this new habit.

Stay safe and call your pediatrician!

Please follow common sense in the precautions you and your family take to avoid getting sick in the pandemic. Know that it is safe to go to the doctor and keep up with the routine care that keeps us healthy. Make it part of your new normal to call your pediatrician!

Lily J. Lou, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician/neonatologist in Anchorage, and past president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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