Dr. Meg Fisher is a world-renowned pediatric infectious disease consultant, a special adviser to New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and a board member for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
She also is someone who is not afraid to admit the medical community made a misstep during the early days of the pandemic.
COVID-19 cases among children are soaring — more than 100 kids were hospitalized at the start of the week — and Fisher said that is a result of a low level of vaccinations among children, a fact spurred by medical (and governmental) leaders downplaying the impact of COVID on kids at the outset of the pandemic.
“We were stressing so much that children aren’t getting sick, so then parents said, ‘If the children aren’t getting sick, why do we need to vaccinate them?’” she said. “It’s an unfortunate situation.”
One that potentially could have major consequences.
Fisher said it’s not time to panic, and that children are not the cause of the recent surge — which elevated hospitalizations in the state to more than 5,000 for the first time since the pandemic’s earliest days.
“It’s absolutely fair to continue to say most children who get COVID don’t get sick enough to be hospitalized,” she said.
And, while some children are in intensive care, it happens at a much lower rate than for other age groups.
“As far as hospitalization, intensive care and death, there’s no question that those are still highest in at older ages, specifically 65 and older,” she said.
Fisher said her bigger concern is kids getting long COVID — the condition in which the impact of the virus stays with them for months, even years.
“We do know that children can get long COVID,” she said. “They can have those lasting, lingering problems, difficulty concentrating and brain fog, where they can’t read like they used to be able to read, they can’t do math like they used to be able to do math.
“Fatigue, muscle pain, joint pains — all of the incapacitating things that really are part of long COVID — we know children get that.”
Here’s the most challenging part.
“The children who get it aren’t necessarily the ones who are the sickest,” she said. “It can happen whether you have mild disease or whether you had more severe disease.”
Fisher is not looking to lock down kids. In fact, she said she wants them to remain in the classroom.
“For me, it’s where’s the safest place for a child to be?” she asked, and then answered. “If school is safer than the community, then they should be in school. We know that keeping them at home does isolate them, does interfere with their learning process.
“We know there’s a lot of community spread, and we know that there are going to be cases in school-aged children because of that community spread. But we have seen that we’ve been able to keep schools open. As a pediatrician, I’m very concerned about the children falling even further behind in school. And, if we could do it safely, the best place for a child is in school.”
As long as they are vaccinated.
Fisher said the numbers confirm it: More than 90% of kids who are hospitalized have not received a single shot, she said. Less than 3% have been fully vaccinated.
Fisher, who served as an infectious disease specialist at Monmouth Medical Center, where she also served as chair of pediatrics and as the medical director of the Unterberg Children’s Hospital, said it’s time for parents to hear a new message on kids and COVID.
“I would really strongly advise every parent to get their child vaccinated,” she said. “I think we’re at a time where we’re seeing this pandemic completely going crazy.”
Anything else, she said, is leaving things to chance.
“We can’t tell which child is going to be the one to get into more severe trouble, but we do know that over 1,000 children in the United States have died of COVID-19,” she said. “It’s not the time to take a chance with your child.
“We don’t know if natural immunity is better. We don’t think it is. And we certainly think vaccine immunity is much safer. We’re not hitting the panic button. But I would strongly encourage parents to get their children vaccinated.”