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By Dr. Michael Yogman
I may be a pediatrician, but it doesn’t take a doctor to know the last two years have been profoundly challenging for our nation’s children. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all areas of children’s lives, including canceled playdates and school closings—all exacerbated by prolonged delays in vaccine eligibility for my youngest patients. Many children have lost caretakers and other family members and faced severe illness themselves.
Today, I write to the Association of Children’s Museums as part of the We Can Do This campaign—a collaboration among the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many other organizations committed to the health and wellness of our nation and its children—that seeks to increase public confidence in and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines while reinforcing basic prevention measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
The Association of Children’s Museums and its members are key partners in this effort. As the past board chair of the Boston Children’s Museum, I believe strongly in the vital role of museums in the effort to educate families about COVID-19. Museums promote hands-on, playful learning and discovery; cooperation; collaboration; and concern for all our fellow citizens. The work the association does is more important than ever, and I am grateful for our ongoing partnership.
The impact of COVID-19 on kids has been devastating. As of April 2022, one in six children under age 18 have been infected with COVID-19. Contrary to what some believe, children are not immune to the devastating effects of this virus. Over 100,000 have been hospitalized, and over 1,500 have died. It’s hard to fathom that scale of loss—the equivalent of 30 school buses full of kids. We are also concerned about the symptoms of long covid in children.
However, those numbers alone do not adequately illustrate the impact the pandemic has had on children’s health. One of the most alarming outcomes has been the mental health crisis that continues to unfold. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, writing:
As health professionals dedicated to the care of children and adolescents, we have witnessed soaring rates of mental health challenges among children, adolescents, and their families over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbating the situation that existed prior to the pandemic.
Fortunately, thanks to the tireless work of medical researchers, children ages five and older are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective, and freely available for all families. The pediatric COVID-19 vaccine has been rigorously reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversaw the participation of thousands of children in clinical trials and continue to monitor the safety and efficacy of the vaccine as we surpass 27 million vaccinated kids. Hopefully, the vaccine for younger children will be available soon.
To move past the pandemic, it is crucial that as many children are immunized against COVID-19 as possible. That requires us to concentrate our efforts on vulnerable populations by working together to reach them and supporting the immunization of all our citizens. This will not only prevent severe illness and death, but it will also help to keep classrooms open, allow kids to socialize with significantly lower risk of contracting serious illness, and help to protect children’s caretakers who may be in a higher risk category for severe illness and death from the virus.
Vaccinating children—along with deploying other basic prevention measures as needed—will protect their health and allow them to fully engage in all the activities that are so important to their health and development. As pediatricians, we are working directly with families to educate them on the importance of protecting kids from COVID-19.
Each of us has a role to play in protecting children against COVID-19. Museums are particularly important partners in this effort. Museums support education, promote empathy, and support caregiver–child relationships—all critical to buffering stress and promoting resilience. Despite being one of the hardest-hit institutions during the pandemic, museums and the work you do are more important than ever.
When museums were forced to close at the beginning of the pandemic, you did not abandon your mission to educate the public. Museums across the country, including the Children’s Museum Houston, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and my very own Boston Children’s Museum, began building out digital resources to provide accessible, free educational resources for kids. By inspiring curiosity in our children, museums are shaping a generation of young minds who can make informed choices, solve tough issues, and critically evaluate sound scientific advances. This is key to not only helping us move past the COVID-19 pandemic, but also preparing a generation to intervene in future public health crises.
Museums are also crucial in promoting empathy and concern for all our fellow citizens. When we wish to learn about other cultures, museums are often one of the first places we go, because they provide insight into the past, present, and future of ourselves and each other. Developing empathy and respect for one another is vital, especially when dealing with a public health crisis. For children, it helps them understand the sacrifices we make to protect others and reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness when times are tough.
Finally, museums provide a necessary space for introspection. Amid a mental health crisis, museums provide children and adolescents with a place to think, reflect, and develop informed opinions. Whether it’s reflecting on history or appreciating the beauty of the natural world, museums provide perspective and peace in a nonstop world.
The gifts that museums provide are timeless, but they are particularly invaluable as we work to respond to COVID-19 and to protect our kids. As a pediatrician, I urge museums across the country to continue prioritizing education, empathy, and introspection. You can help us in our work by continuing to innovate on delivering virtual learning opportunities for families and providing COVID-safe physical spaces for children to learn. It takes all of us together to prioritize children’s health and well-being during such an uncertain time.
Museums are key allies in the work we do, and we are grateful for their partnership as we work together to create the next generation of educated, informed citizens. Check out WeCanDoThis.HHS.gov for resources museums can use to help with your COVID vaccine education and outreach.
Click here to hear more from Dr. Yogman about the relationship between museums and the fight against COVID-19.
Dr. Michael Yogman is a leading Boston area pediatrician, Immediate Past Board Chair of Boston Children’s Museum, and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.