Dr. Anita Henderson, a Hattiesburg pediatrician, joins Mississippi Today’s Adam Ganucheau and Kate Royals to discuss the dramatic increase of COVID-19 delta variant cases among children. While experts are unsure whether the delta variant is more virulent or causes more severe illness in children, they are sure of this: There is far, far more of it.

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Read a transcript of the episode below.

Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. I’m your host, Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics in Mississippi. From breaking news to political strategy to interviews with candidates and elected officials, we’ll bring you facts, perspectives, and context that helps you cut through the noise and understand all sides of the story.

Joining us today is Dr. Anita Henderson, Hattiesburg pediatrician and president of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Henderson, thank you so much for being here today. 

Anita Henderson: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity. I really appreciate it. 

Adam Ganucheau: Sure thing. Well, it’s a pleasure. I was telling you a minute ago you’ve been so vocal on all this stuff, especially the last few weeks as the rise of the delta variant across the state has kind of gripped us. And just thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure. Also joining us today is my colleague Mississippi Today’s education reporter, Kate Royals.

Kate, this is your first time on the podcast, I think, right? 

Kate Royals: It is.

Adam Ganucheau: It’s hard to believe that just given the many stories that you’ve done. Anyways, just excited for both of y’all to be here. Dr. Henderson, I’m going to have just a very general question for you in just a second, but before we get to you, Kate, you published a story late last week talking sort of about, like I said, the rise of COVID in Mississippi, particularly among children. You know, of course as education reporter, this is a big deal for you. You cover what happens across the schools in Mississippi, but your story to me was pretty shocking. The data that you presented, provided to sort of back up the claim that more children than ever are getting COVID was pretty shocking.

Just tell us a little bit about that story. 

Kate Royals: So, you know, something I’ve been hearing from pediatricians and other experts in the state is that this is just a very different coronavirus this year that we’re dealing with when it comes to kids, as opposed to last year. You know, last year we heard a lot of the line about, you know, “Kids don’t seem to be getting in as much or sick or spreading it as much.” And that is just not the case this year the data shows and the experts say. So actually the five to 17 age group in Mississippi made up the largest share or percentage of total COVID cases in the state in the past week than it ever has before in the pandemic. So, you know, I think it was around 18% of the total cases.

And, you know, the hospitals are seeing this, the schools are seeing this. It’s just very apparent that it’s a different situation than last year. 

Adam Ganucheau: We talk a lot about sort of data and, you know, Mississippi Today, we have like several full-time folks, like focused on just providing the numbers because unfortunately a lot of people will tune out the experts for political reasons, for other reasons.

And we think the numbers are important. So I don’t want this whole podcast to be just about the numbers. And I think Dr. Henderson you would agree with that, but one stat that I wanted to read from your story, Kate, which I just thought was really shocking. I mean, my mouth literally hung open when I read it sort of to try to quantify what we’re talking about here, the rise of COVID and children. 

Looking at just the data that public schools across the state, public school districts across the state are reporting to the state department of health about COVID outbreaks, positive cases confirmed in their schools. I’m just going to read the sentence. “A Mississippi Today analysis shows an 830% increase in the number of COVID cases in children for the first two weeks of school this year, compared to the first two weeks of school last year.” Eight hundred-thirty percent increase this year compared to last year.

So to me there’s no better illustration of what we’re dealing with here. Dr. Henderson, so I want to get you to sort of weigh in and ask you just generally to kick us off. The numbers aside, everything else going on, what are you seeing and hearing on the ground? You know, what are you seeing yourself? What are you hearing from other pediatricians across the state about what’s happening in Mississippi right now? 

Anita Henderson: Well, you are absolutely correct. And Kate is absolutely correct that the numbers this year for August are far and away exceeding what we ever saw during the entire pandemic last year. School started here in south Mississippi in Lamar County about three weeks ago.

And at that point, masks were optional. The Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the department of health, had recommended back in mid-July that all schools start with masks mandatory for all children, just because we knew that number one, they worked last year and kids were able to stay in school.

And number two, we knew that the delta variant was different. We knew it was affecting children. It was much more contagious. So some schools started with masks mandatory, but a large number started with them optional. And so just in the last few weeks, we have seen that significant rise. What pediatricians throughout the state are telling me is they have been inundated with calls, with questions and with concerned parents. One thing I like to remind people is that a child does not live in a bubble. So if a child comes home from school with coronavirus, they have to be cared for by a parent. They have siblings. So one child coming home is going to transmit it in general throughout the household. It just is how things work.

In fact, I got a phone call this morning from a friend, a family of six. Both the parents were vaccinated, but a child has come home from school with COVID, and now it has just gone from child to child to child. And so those parents want to know what to do. Under the age of 12, there is no ability to get vaccinated, but over the age of 12, the first foremost thing that our parents can do to protect their children is get them vaccinated.

If they haven’t done that already, go ahead and do it now. We unfortunately only have about 12% of kids 12 to 15 who are fully vaccinated, so that means there are a lot of kids in the school system who aren’t vaccinated. So we would ask them to get vaccinated. Make that plan today. The second thing we’re asking parents to do is contact their school’s district, contact their school board and their superintendent and encourage them to require masks within the classroom setting for all students. Some of our school boards have wanted to do this. But they have gotten pushback from the few parents who are opposed to masks. So this is a situation in which, in some instances, the few vocal parents are outweighing and out shouting the rest of the student body, the rest of the parents.

So we’re asking parents to be more proactive. We’re asking them to support school systems that have instituted those masks. And then the third thing, you know, right now, we just need to put a pause on some things. We just need to take a break from unnecessary activities. We can have those big birthday parties another time.

But to be honest right now, you know, we’ve got a runaway train in our state in terms of children. And we have one pediatric children’s hospital in our state. We have one pediatric ICU, and it is overwhelmed. So we are just asking people to do everything in their power to put kids first, to do what’s right for the children, to get them safely in school and to get them safely through this delta wave. 

Kate Royals: Speaking of vaccinations and kids, and I know you gave that statistic about, I think you said the 12% and the 12 to 15 age range. What’s the status of the vaccinations for the 12 and under, and even the five and under. Do you know?

Anita Henderson: We are hearing, you know, that the Pfizer and Moderna trials have some very good data that will go to the FDA and the ACIP soon.

It’s possible we might have a vaccine down to the age of five in September, but we’re also hearing mid-winter. And so for those people who have children under the age of 12 who are unable to be vaccinated, the best thing they can do for their children right now is to make sure everyone else around them is vaccinated.

Make sure parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, anyone who’s 12 and up around that child should be vaccinated. 

Adam Ganucheau: Dr. Henderson, you talked about sort of the importance of wearing masks in schools. And this is a political podcast after all. We’ve talked a lot about the response or lack of response at times from Governor Tate Reeves.

You kind of laid this out pretty well a minute ago, but a year ago as schools were determining how and if to go back to class in-person, Governor Reeves issued a statewide school’s mask mandate. To your point, I think you and other experts across the board said consistently that that’s sort of what kept so many schools in the classrooms.

 The masks obviously the data shows that they do limit the spread of the virus, even among children, especially among children. This year, of course, was different. The governor instead of issuing that mask mandate has left it up to the local school boards to decide for themselves. What that has meant is that some school district to this day, even after sort of outbreaks in their schools, have been hesitant or haven’t at all issued a mask mandate for the school buildings. Of course, this issue has been so politicized. It’s been just sort of this vitriolic political issue that we’re seeing across the country, and especially in Southern states. You know, the governor continues to make it political as he’s asked about it. I guess it was a couple of weeks ago your organization, the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, joined forces publicly with the Mississippi Association of Educators to call on Governor Reeves to issue a statewide mandate saying, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

I believe that’s the exact quote from that press release. Talk to us just a little bit about your thoughts on where we are in terms of masks in schools. And what do you make of the governor’s sort of lack of action this year, as compared to last year on this?

Anita Henderson: We really were very pleased last year when the governor issued an executive order, and it was maintained throughout the school year, that masks were required within the school system for K- 12.

So we were very thankful for that executive order. We feel like it helped children stay in school, and it helped keep them there safely. So we were simply asking the governor to institute that again this year because it worked last year, and he did that. There were other people last year who were opposed, particularly the end of the year.

I know he got some political flack for that. We were very pleased with that executive order. And so we were asking for it again this year because as pediatricians our goal is to protect children and keep them in the schools safely. So we’re not a political organization. We simply want to do what’s right for kids.

So my message to the governor, my message to a school boards, to school superintendents is think about what is best for that child. We have to focus on the kid. They don’t have a voice. If they were to be asked whether they would rather wear a mask and be in school versus not wear a mask and have to go virtual, they will tell you, “We will wear a mask. We want to be in school. We did it all last year, and we did it well.” 

I think if the kids were asked, they would rather be in school. They’re not having trouble wearing the masks. Unfortunately some of their parents believe that it is— I don’t even know what to say that they believe it is. But we have data that masks work.

We have data that they work safely. They do not cause health problems. In fact, last year, when kids wore masks all school year, we did not see flu. We did not see RSV. We did not have to hospitalize kids with asthma attacks or pneumonia. In fact, last winter, the majority of pediatric offices throughout the state were pretty empty in terms of sick visits. And I think you’ve heard that nationwide, that there were fewer illnesses and fewer pediatric visits. This summer, when mask came off, when people started doing everything again, we started seeing a significant rise in RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, along with other respiratory viruses.

So, we know that masks work. We know they protect kids’ health. They do not affect their development or their language, and they keep kids safely in school. So, you know, the governor has said he’s not going to issue a mandate. So we have, and we will continue to ask school boards, school superintendents, parents to be the voice for children. 

Kate Royals: Dr. Henderson, what kind of impact do you think it has on kids that there is this sort of mixed messaging around masks? And without the statewide mask mandate this year, like you pointed out, it is now left up to individual school boards. I mean, I talked to a school board member the other day who, you know, said he doesn’t believe masks work. And he’s hearing far more from parents against any type of mask mandate than parents for a mask mandate. And, you know, we find ourselves in this situation where these people in political positions that need to get reelected or reappointed are listening to people who don’t have an M.D. behind their name and don’t necessarily know the actual research. And I’m just curious, you know, what kind of impact is that having on children who can’t, you know, speak up for themselves or voice their own thoughts?

Anita Henderson: I think that is a very good point, and as pediatricians, we talk about the fact that children learn from their parents. They model the behavior that they see, they model the words that they hear.

And so when we have children hearing parents complain about masks, when we have children hearing parents complain about public health officials, complain about protocols that are put in place for their safety, you know, those kids are hearing that. And it does worry me that we are unfortunately raising a generation of children who don’t believe that public health is there to protect them. In person people talk to me and believe what I say and stop me at the grocery store or stop me at church in the past or call me on the phone.

So in person, people believe their own doctor, they believe their own pediatrician, but somehow in this social media space online, they feel very comfortable talking badly about public health officials, about physicians, about people who are trying to protect their kids. So unfortunately the children are seeing that.

And I would caution parents to think about what they’re saying, think about what they’re teaching their children because the teachers, the parents, the physicians out there, our goal is to protect kids. Our goal is to get them in school safely because we know that’s where they learn best. That is our goal.

We don’t have a political goal. We have a goal of protecting children.

Adam Ganucheau: Dr. Henderson, this has been such a great conversation. I want to close by asking you for anyone listening, who might still doubt whether or not this is affecting kids in a much sort of a more profound way during this fourth wave, for anyone who doubts the the efficacy of mask wearing and sort of how that slows the spread of the virus, do you have any just stories, anecdotes of that you’ve heard the last few days or weeks that might mean something to somebody out there who’s still kind of on the fence about these things? Anything that has struck you specifically that’s happened to a child or a family that you’d like to share with us as we close here?

Anita Henderson: Thank you. I have so many stories, but I’ll just start with kind of what happened to me last Monday. A pregnant mom at our local hospital who was 23 years old and had a baby at 23 weeks, she passed away. She died of COVID before her baby was even able to be delivered. A few hours later, we admitted a five week old from my clinic to the hospital with COVID and all throughout that day and the next day, I was concerned and worried about a five-year-old from our area who was in the children’s hospital with multi-system inflammatory syndrome who was in and out of consciousness. So those things, that is just what happened to me last Monday. I also have patients who are coming in with long COVID in kids.

We didn’t even talk about that. Five to 10%, some studies have said 10 to 20% of kids may suffer from long COVID. A flute player cannot play the flute anymore because she cannot sustain the note. So COVID in kids, it does not affect them in as significant of a way in some situations as the adult.

Our adults and our elderly were our focus last year. Nursing homes were a concern last year. But now with the Delta wave with this Delta variant, the kids are where we should be focusing our efforts and our energy. They must be our priority because COVID is running wild through the school system and through our children.

So I just encourage everyone to look at what they’re doing, look at what they’re seeing, look at what they can say to the people around them to protect kids. 

Adam Ganucheau: So actually now I lied. Closing message for anyone listening, even if it’s a simple one, what would you say? 

Anita Henderson: Please, if you haven’t been vaccinated, do that now. It is effective. It is safe. We are giving vaccines within my clinic, my pediatric clinic and pediatric clinics throughout the state are doing it. We’ve vaccinated our own children. And if you have questions, talk to your doctor. They will answer those specific questions. So number one, 12 and up get vaccinated.

Number two, please wear a mask. Please model that good behavior to protect your children. Number three, avoid those unnecessary activities right now because we must do everything we can right now to slow the spread of COVID within our communities. And please support your school, support your superintendent, support those people who are trying to protect kids.

Adam Ganucheau: Well, Dr. Henderson, thank you so much for joining us today, giving us this sobering, but. important sort of update on where we are in Mississippi right now. Kate, thank you for being here as well. Thanks to both of y’all for everything you’re doing and for helping spread the word just couldn’t thank you enough. 

Anita Henderson: Thank you so much again for having me. I appreciate it.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

If you listen to the podcast on a player like iTunes or Stitcher, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review. We also have an email in which you can share your feedback. That address is Podcast@MississippiToday.org. Y’all can also reach out to me or any of my colleagues through social media or email. And as always thank you for your feedback and support.

Subscribe to our weekly podcast on your favorite podcast app or stream episodes online at MississippiToday.org/the-other-side. For the Mississippi Today team, I’m Adam Ganucheau. The Other Side is produced by Mississippi Today and engineered by Blue Sky Studios. We hope you’ll join us for our next episode.

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.