COVID-19, children’s health and the ‘new normal’

by Dr. Chad Rodgers ([email protected]) 799 views 

Disruptions to our normal routines and way of life have become commonplace during the last eight months. As we adjust to life during COVID, we often talk of a “new normal.” As we adjust to the way things are – and may be for some time, it is important to keep in mind the health of our children.

Part of the new normal of health care delivery has been telehealth. Telehealth visits have allowed people to continue seeing the doctor while protecting themselves and others from potential infection. However, some visits simply cannot be conducted virtually.

The CDC has observed a drop-off in child vaccinations and well-child visits. These routine visits, which must occur in-person, are critical to avoid outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and keep children protected. Parents are rightfully concerned about protecting their children from COVID-19, but as social distancing requirements are relaxed, children who are not protected by vaccines will be more vulnerable to diseases such as measles.

It is important for health care providers to communicate with their patients that they are open for business and have taken the appropriate precautions to protect their patients when they come into the office for their appointments. The Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has prepared a variety of resources for providers and patients to ensure safe visits to the doctor’s office. On our COVID-19 Updates and Resources page, you will find customizable scripts that providers can use when reaching out to patients and checklists that patients can use to prepare for their next visit, as well as a variety of other resources and educational webinars.

With children staying home during the pandemic, risk factors for obesity are on the rise. Children must have enough physical activity and eat a healthy diet to maintain an appropriate weight. For many children, the new normal of COVID has meant less time being active and difficulty accessing healthy foods.

Children need to be active for at least 60 minutes a day or more, but with reduced access to recess, PE and other physical activities at school, or if they are attending school virtually, it is easy to overlook the need to get up and move. Children’s physical activity should include a mix of aerobic activities, like walking or running, muscle-strengthening activities, such as climbing or doing push-ups, and bone-strengthening activities, such as jumping or running. Healthy Active Arkansas has provided a library of healthy activities that can be performed by children and adults alike.

When it comes to eating a healthy diet, children (and adults) need to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. For some families that means that parents should simply avoid buying convenience foods such as chips, pastries, cookies and other types of pre-packaged foods, and should instead focus on eating meals and snacks they prepare with fresh ingredients. For other families, fresh ingredients may not be easily available. Because of job loss or other changes in economic status, some families may be experiencing food insecurity. Many families in Arkansas live in food deserts, where people have limited access to a variety of healthful foods.

Healthy Active Arkansas has worked with state and local governments, community leaders and other partners to help ensure all Arkansans have access to healthy foods. They have prepared an Arkansas COVID-19 food access map that provides information on locations for food pantries, farmer’s markets and school and community meals throughout the state.

In pre-pandemic times, parents were often warned of the dangers of screen time and encouraged to limit the amount of time children spent looking at phones, tablets or computers, and watching television. Since the pandemic began, parents have reported a 66 percent increase in screen time. Most of this increase can be attributed to the rise in online schooling, but with children spending more time at home with relaxed supervision, it is easy for the amount of time children spend with screens to increase.

It is important to remember that not all screen time is created equal. Screen time is neither inherently good nor bad. Rather, it’s the active participation when consuming content on a screen that makes a difference. Passively watching television shows or mindlessly scrolling a social media feed may not be a good use of screen time but watching an educational program can be. Watching a video to learn a new skill, and then putting that learning to action can be an incredibly effective use of screen time. Using video chat to connect with family and friends when visiting with them in person is not possible is good for maintaining social connections which positively benefits a child’s health in several ways. The point is not to worry about the amount of screen time, but to prioritize high-quality screen time over low-quality screen time.

We don’t know how long this pandemic will be with us. Many people lament the inconvenience of these disruptions and long for a return to the way things were. But for children, these disruptions can alter their development, sometimes in very negative ways. With a few tweaks to daily routines, parents can ensure their children continue to develop habits that will ensure a lifetime of good health.

Editor’s note: Dr. Chad Rodgers is an Arkansas pediatrician and is the Chief Medical Officer for the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care. The opinions expressed are those of the author. Dr. Rodgers discusses this subject in greater depth in the video below.