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As kids head back to school, here’s how to keep RSV, COVID and other illnesses at bay

With back to school just around the corner and COVID-19 cases on the rise, it’s important to remember the basics of keeping respiratory illnesses at bay, one expert says.

Dr. Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and founder of Kidcrew Medical, told CTV News Channel on Monday that we can mitigate the risk of viruses such as COVID-19 and RSV by maintaining proper hygiene, keeping kids home from school if they’re sick and masking up if you believe you could be infectious.

“I think the more we send our kids to school sick, the more we go back to the workplaces sick, the more likely we are to spread viruses, particularly … indoors without masks, etc,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re spending lots of time outdoors if we can, we mask if we’re unwell or if we think we might be contagious, wash our hands well.”

According to Health Canada, as of the end of August, COVID-19 activity is “increasing” in Canada, with the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients increasing from 1,836 to 2,125 between Aug. 23 and Aug. 29.

Many regions in Canada no longer track or report their COVID-19 numbers regularly, meaning that numbers may be undercounted. Around one in 54 people may be infected currently, according to the most recent estimate from the Canadian COVID-19 Hazard Index, a project aggregating COVID-19 data which is run by a volunteer group of scientists and epidemiologists.

COVID-19 was back in the headlines in August when the first case of BA.2.86 – a new, heavily mutated variant – was detected in British Columbia. The variant, also known as Pirola, spiked fears that it could evade vaccine protection due to having more than 30 mutations in its spike protein compared to it closest ancestor, BA.2.

Early research suggests that the new variant may not be as dangerous as first believed. Two studies, performed in China and Sweden, have found that BA.2.86 doesn’t look as different to our immune systems as was feared, and that although the new variant poses a threat, it shouldn’t cause the jump in cases that the advent of Omicron did.

“It is great news that the new research is showing it’s less contagious and less invasive to immune systems (than) we thought before,” Kulik said. “Still, though, kids can get it, particularly those that have not had COVID recently or haven’t had a vaccine in a long time, and a big concern we have going back to school is kids will be enclosed again, in a closed environment, less outdoor activity (than) we have in the summer.”

Currently, the XBB variant sub-lineages are dominant in Canada, with XBB.1.9.2 making up the most prevalent lineage group in the last three weeks, as of Aug. 29. The federal government is preparing for the introduction of new COVID-19 vaccines in the fall, with Health Canada still reviewing submissions from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to update their COVID-19 vaccinations to one which target XBB.1.5 and its sub-lineages.

Fall also means we will likely see more cases of RSV, which follows a seasonal pattern and usually begins to hit hard in the fall.

Another concern with back to school is “the risk of getting COVID along with RSV and/or flu at the same time, which has been a concern for us for a number of years,” Kulik said.

The biggest way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses through schools is for parents to keep their kids home if they’re sick and not send them to school with a cough or a runny nose, she said.

Despite school starting up again, she said this year “parents seem less concerned about COVID,” pointing out that “we’re not masking much anymore, we’re in closed settings again.”

Some parents likely feel that if their children have already had COVID-19 in the past, the spectre of the virus is less threatening, she said.

But COVID-19 can still have a large impact, and not just in the acute stage. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 36 million people in Europe alone may have had long-lasting health problems due to long COVID, a chronic condition that medical experts are still working to understand.

“Some kids do get quite sick, adults as well, with COVID (still), and we do want to avoid, as much as we can, repeated infections, which may not be great for us in the long-term as well,” Kulik said.

She added that it’s important for kids to get a proper amount of sleep and eat a balanced diet.

“We know these things can help keep us healthy all year round, but particularly during viral season,” she said.

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