COVID-19 pandemic brings unexpected pediatric consequences


As physicians and advanced practitioners, we have been preparing to face COVID-19 – anticipating increasing volumes of patients with fevers, cough, and shortness of breath, and potential surges in emergency departments (EDs) and primary care offices. Fortunately, while COVID-19 has demonstrated more mild symptoms in pediatric patients, the heightened public health fears and mandated social isolation have created some unforeseen consequences for pediatric patients. This article presents cases encountered over the course of 2 weeks in our ED that shed light on the unexpected ramifications of living in the time of a pandemic. These encounters should remind us as providers to be diligent and thorough in giving guidance to families during a time when face-to-face medicine has become increasingly difficult and limited.

These stories have been modified to protect patient confidentiality.

Mother with her baby video calling doctor from home recep-bg/E+/Getty Images

Case 1

A 2-week-old full-term infant arrived in the ED after having a fever for 48 hours. The patient’s mother reported that she had called the pediatrician yesterday to ask for advice on treating the fever and was instructed to give acetaminophen and bring the infant into the ED for testing.

When we asked mom why she did not bring the infant in yesterday, she stated that the fever went down with acetaminophen, and the baby was drinking well and urinating normally. Mostly, she was afraid to bring the child into the ED given concern for COVID-19; however, when the fever persisted today, she came in. During the work-up, the infant was noted to have focal seizures and was ultimately diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.

Takeaway: Families may be hesitant to follow pediatrician’s advice to seek medical attention at an ED or doctor’s office because of the fear of being exposed to COVID-19.

  • If something is urgent or emergent, be sure to stress the importance to families that the advice is non-negotiable for their child’s health.
  • Attempt to call ahead for patients who might be more vulnerable in waiting rooms or overcrowded hospitals.

Case 2

A 5-month-old baby presented to the ED with new-onset seizures. Immediate bedside blood work performed demonstrated a normal blood glucose, but the baby was profoundly hyponatremic. Upon asking the mother if the baby has had any vomiting, diarrhea, or difficulty tolerating feeds, she says that she has been diluting formula because all the stores were out of formula. Today, she gave the baby plain water because they were completely out of formula.

Takeaway: With economists estimating unemployment rates in the United States at 13% at press time (the worst since the Great Depression), many families may lack resources to purchase necessities.

  • Even if families have the ability to purchase necessities, they may be difficult to find or unavailable (e.g., formula, medications, diapers).
  • Consider reaching out to patients in your practice to ask about their ability to find essentials and with advice on what to do if they run out of formula or diapers, or who they should contact if they cannot refill a medication.
  • Are you in a position to speak with your mayor or local council to ensure there are regulations on the hoarding of essential items?
  • In a time when breast milk or formula is not available for children younger than 1 year of age, what will you recommend for families? There are no current American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines.

Case 3

A school-aged girl was helping her mother sanitize the home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She had her gloves on, her commercial antiseptic cleaner ready to go, but it was not spraying. She turned the bottle around to check the nozzle and sprayed herself in the eyes. The family presented to the ED for alkaline burn to her eyes, which required copious irrigation.

Takeaway: Children are spending more time in the house with access to button batteries, choking hazards, and cleaning supplies.

  • Cleaning products can cause chemical burns. These products should not be used by young children.
Dr. Angelica Despain, Children's National Hospital, Washington

Dr. Angelica Despain

Case 4

A school-aged boy arrived via emergency medical services (EMS) for altered mental status. He told his father he was feeling dizzy and then lost consciousness. EMS noticed that he had some tonic movements of his lower extremities, and when he arrived in the ED, he had eye deviation and was unresponsive.

Work-up ultimately demonstrated that this patient had a seizure and a dangerously elevated ethanol level from drinking an entire bottle of hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer may contain high concentrations of ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol, which when ingested can cause intoxication or poisoning.

Takeaway: Many products that we may view as harmless can be toxic if ingested in large amounts.

  • Consider making a list of products that families may have acquired and have around the home during this COVID-19 pandemic and instruct families to make sure dangerous items (e.g., acetaminophen, aspirin, hand sanitizer, lighters, firearms, batteries) are locked up and/or out of reach of children.
  • Make sure families know the Poison Control phone number (800-222-1222).


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