Key Takeaways - STS Parent Q and A with Dr. Sallie Permar

On Tuesday, October 6, St. Timothy’s School hosted via Zoom an online Parent Q&A with Dr. Sallie Permar, a physician and scientist specializing in pediatric infectious diseases, moderated by Head of School Tim Tinnesz. Parents submitted questions in advance, as well as during the live session. A summary of Dr. Permar’s responses and other key takeaways from the evening are provided below. 

 Basic Understandings On SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19

  • The virus is called “SARS-CoV-2,” while the illness caused by the virus is known as “COVID-19.”
  • While many viruses are spread through bodily fluids and droplets—thereby requiring someone to cough, sneeze, or touch contaminated surfaces for transmission to occur—the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be aerosolized and spread through the air, making it easier to spread even without direct contact. For example, it can be spread through breathing, talking, singing or shouting—especially if in closer proximity with others, and/or if indoors with less ventilation.
  • Those infected with the virus can be shedding it (and spreading it) even without having any symptoms of COVID-19. Those who develop COVID-19 are often contagious for up to two days before their first symptoms develop.
  • Most children continue to be less negatively impacted by this virus than adults. At first, it was theorized that perhaps the viral load may be lower in children—but this theory has since been generally disproven. Children can and do get this virus, and they can transmit it to others. Generally, though, their symptoms are less severe.
  • The “3 W’s” are critical in reducing transmission—“Wear a mask,” “Wait at least 6 feet apart from others—socially distance,” and “Wash hands thoroughly and regularly.”
  • Wearing masks is especially important. When we think of general particle sizes, there is a spectrum of sizes—and masks do the best job of limiting many aerosolized particles from passing into the air or being breathed in. On the other hand, masks do not prevent oxygen intake or carbon dioxide exhalation for wearers. Masks are the best and safest tool to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission, until we have a safe and effective vaccine available.

COVID-19 and Seasonal Flu

  • For adults, COVID-19 is 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu.
  • For children, seasonal flu is 10 times more deadly than COVID-19.
  • Every family and every member of the family should get the flu shot—this year and every year. Doing so will considerably reduce the chance you will get severely ill with influenza, including reducing hospitalization and death from the infection. Contrary to a popular myth, the seasonal flu vaccine is safe and cannot “give you the flu.” To make STS the safest it can be for our children and teachers, we all need to do our part to get a flu vaccine. 

COVID-19 and Family Gatherings, Holidays, Travel, and Athletics

  • A good question to consider in making any decision is, “How many people would I need to notify if I became sick?” Keeping that number as small as possible is highly recommended.
  • Masked, outdoor, distanced gatherings with smaller groups of people carry the least risk.
  • Families may consider establishing a “germ pod”—a small group of others who are taking similar precautions to limit contacts/exposure—with whom you are comfortable socializing.
  • Limiting non-essential travel is best. Before traveling, review which airports and airlines may be taking the best health precautions for travelers (not all airports are equal), and just as with limiting any time in enclosed areas, it’s best to avoid long flights if at all possible.
  • Families should carefully contemplate their risk tolerance, as well as their degree of interaction with higher-risk populations, like grandparents, when considering their activities—including athletics. Outdoor sports, like tennis, golf, running, kickball, etc., may be able to be done safely and socially distanced. Indoor activities, like gymnastics, could be done distanced and masked. Other indoor sports, like basketball, cannot be reasonably played masked and distanced—and therefore carry substantially more risk for transmission.

Testing and Monitoring

  • There are currently two primary tests to detect the virus: (1) PCR tests that detect the virus’s genetic material, which must be sent to a lab and therefore take 2-4 days to obtain results; and (2) Rapid antigen tests that detect specific proteins, do not need to be sent to a lab, and therefore could provide results in as little as 15 minutes. North Carolina is beginning to receive and distribute a growing number of rapid tests to increase their availability.  However, the rapid antigen tests are less sensitive and thus should be used only for those who are symptomatic.
  • More recent nasal swab techniques are less invasive than some of the earlier PCR testing that went further up the nose.
  • Testing is not 100% accurate for a variety of reasons. For example, testing too soon after initial exposure may lead to a negative test result because a person’s viral load may not yet have had enough time to be detectable by the test. Current guidance is to wait 3-5 days after exposure to minimize the chances of a false negative result.
  • It is safest for someone who has had close contact with an infected person to isolate for 14 days, regardless of negative test results, to ensure they do not inadvertently carry/spread the virus.


Emotional Health and Well-Being of Children and Families

  • Limiting travel, family visits, social groups, and certain large group experiences can pose challenges, but children are resilient, and these tradeoffs are worth it because they are the best way to allow students to participate in in-person schooling.
  • With in-person schooling at St. Timothy’s School, our children are fortunate to be surrounded by loving, caring community each day. Losing the option of in-person schooling because of extensive community spread is a far more consequential risk for the social-emotional wellbeing of children.


Vaccine Considerations

  • The “fast tracking” of vaccines is cutting time for manufacturing by producing them prior to knowing whether the vaccines work, but does not sacrifice their safety. Part of any final vaccine approval process will require committees of experts (and no representatives from the drug companies) to sign off on a vaccine before it is available to the public.
  • In the months ahead, several different vaccine options will become available. Some will use the more traditional techniques used by older, established vaccines. Others will use newer techniques. We will need to watch the data to see which vaccines end up as safe and effective.
  • It appears most likely right now that the first adult vaccines will become available this winter/spring—and offered to frontline medical workers and those in high risk populations, then offered to those in other professions (like teachers), and finally to all other adults, ideally by late spring and summer of 2021.
  • Pediatric vaccines for those under age 18 (or 16 for some vaccines) are currently running months behind the adult vaccines as pediatric trials need to be performed separately from adult trials. Therefore, at this time it’s likely that many/most students will not have an opportunity to be vaccinated by the start of the 2021 school year.  A more realistic timetable for children’s vaccines might be by the end of 2021.