COVID-19 cases in Singapore have gone down compared to the time when the pandemic first started. Measures are slowly being relaxed, but new variants of COVID-19 continue to cause much anxiety. Strains that have emerged include B117 (Alpha variant), B1351 (Beta variant), B16172 (Delta variant) and Brazilian P.1 (Gamma variant).
In particular, the B1617 variant, which was first detected in India in late 2020, has found its way to over 50 countries and is said to be more infectious than the original strain. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan, the B1617 variant is 1.5 to two times more transmissible than the strain that first surfaced in Wuhan. It also has sub-lineages, where B16172 is of great concern since it forms a majority of variant cases here in Singapore.
So how worried should parents be about the new strain, and what can they do to protect their children? We answer some of your biggest questions below.
Why does the new COVID-19 strain spread so easily?
According to health experts, the B1617 COVID-19 strain is particularly infectious because of key mutations in the virus.
The virus’ mutations enable it to better attach itself to our cells. More specifically, it binds more easily with the ACE2 receptor − a receptor protein in the host cell. These ACE2 receptors are present in numerous parts of the human body, including respiratory airways.
Mutations also mean that the virus is more resistant to antibodies and less likely to stick to them. This causes the virus to spread more easily across the population.
Are children more susceptible?
Initially, the B1617 COVID-19 strain seemed to attack younger children more. However, current evidence is still lacking that children are more prone to infection. Cluster environments in Singapore such as schools and enrichment centres have been identified as a reason why more children are being affected.
The Straits Times reported that more than 40 students came down with COVID-19 in May 2021. 29 of them were aged 12 or below, with the first case of school-based COVID-19 transmission announced to be at Anglo-Chinese School. The spike in infections also included a cluster at Learning Point tuition centre.
Straits Times reported that Associate Professor Sylvie Alonso, co-director of the Infectious Diseases Translational Research Programme at NUS, has posited that more aggressive testing among younger age groups led to the spike in cases. Also, as the B1617 COVID-19 strain is generally more transmissible across all ages, more children are likely to get infected too.
Parents should also be reassured to know that the risk of severe illness for those under 18 is much lower than for adults, according to Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, vice-dean of global health at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at NUS. This excludes babies under one and children with underlying medical conditions such as chronic lung disease.
What’s being done?
Schools and other learning centres have taken on various measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 amongst children.
Under the Phase Two (Heightened Alert) national stance, all schools switched to home-based learning (HBL) from 19 to 28 May before the June holidays. Private tuition and enrichment centre classes were also suspended for those under 18.
As part of Phase Three (Heightened Alert), the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced that Primary 1 to 3 pupils will have a week of HBL from 28 June when Term 3 commences. Secondary 1 and 2 students will be on HBL till 30 June, while Primary 4 to 6 students as well as Secondary 3 to 5 students will return on 28 June. It is done to progressively allow students back to school after the holidays. MOE Kindergartens and school-based student care centres will resume from 28 June.
Tuition and enrichment classes for children 18 and below will also continue in person from 21 June. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, such centres will need to abide by the latest government guidelines.
What vaccinations are available for children?
As of now, vaccination is only open to children aged 12 and above. Those aged 12 to 17 are only administered the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, as the Moderna vaccine is currently not approved for children under 18.
Of course, parents may question the safety and efficacy of the vaccine for their children.
According to the Ministry of Health (MOH), the Health Sciences Authority (HAS) has approved of the vaccine and assessed it as safe for kids above 12. Based on clinical trials for children aged 12 to 15, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine demonstrated a high vaccine efficacy consistent with that observed in the adult population. Its safety profile is also consistent with the known safety profile in the adult population (those aged 16 and above). Trials are still ongoing for children below the age of 12.
Parents should be aware of the vaccine’s side effects, which include pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, chills and fever. These symptoms typically resolve within a few days. Bring your child to a doctor if side effects persist or get worse.
Parents of children below 18 should have received an SMS invitation to book vaccination appointments. These have been progressively sent out from 1 June. Get in touch with your child’s school if you have yet to receive an SMS, especially if your child is in the O, N and A levels cohorts. If your child is below 13, you’re required to accompany them to the vaccination centre. There will also be a family waiting area outside vaccination room if you wish to accompany your older child.
Tips for parents: Protecting children from COVID-19
Whilst vaccinations are crucial to reduce COVID-19 infection and prevent severe illness, we can do our part in other ways to protect our little ones. Here are some tips for us to stay safe and healthy:
- Establish good hygiene habits at home, such as regular and thorough hand washing with soap and water.
- Observe safe distancing protocols whenever your family is out and about, especially when visiting attractions and shopping malls which are more crowded.
- Wear surgical masks or other types of masks with high filtration capabilities. Check out mask guidelines here. The HSA advises that face masks should have at least two to three layers of fabric. Most importantly, ensure that your child wears their masks correctly and safely.
- Encourage your child to live a healthy lifestyle. This boosts their immunity and overall health so they don’t fall sick as easily. Ensure they get regular exercise, sufficient sleep and have a balanced diet.
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