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Episode 2: COVID and Kids

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 2: COVID and Kids

With their lives upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, naturally kids have lots of questions about the virus. Maddilyn Smith and Hirsch Zickefoose air some of these questions with Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell, and historian Dr. Jeremy Johnston. Maddilyn is particularly interested in the COVID-19 vaccine and how it will affect kids. Hirsch would like to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic compares to other epidemics throughout history.

Maddilyn Smith

Maddilyn Smith is a 4th grader in Green River, Wy. She loves writing her own mystery novels and illustrating them. She lives with her family and two dogs, Boomer and Zeek. The things in life that she  likes the most are writing, rain, Boomer, and my family.

Dr. Mark Dowell

Dr. Dowell was born in Dallas, Texas and later graduated from the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  He completed 6 additional years of specialty medical  training in Texas and opened up his current medical practice, Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases in 1992.  The practice has grown to now include 7 providers.  Hospital infections, diabetic infections, pneumonia, HIV care, and other unusual infections are evaluated and treated.  Dr. Dowell has been the Natrona County Health Officer  since 1999, was a member of the Board of Directors at Wyoming Medical Center for 8 years, and has given over 400 lectures across the country.  Covid 19 management and public policy has occupied a lot of his recent practice time.  He loves the field of Infectious Diseases, extremely challenging and always changing.  He is married to Caryn, is a father to 2 grown children, and his interests include jogging, professional and college sports, gardening .flyfishing, and jazz.  He is a proud University of Wyoming football season ticket holder!

Hirsch Zickefoose

My name is Hirsch Zickefoose. I live in Pavillion/Riverton in the county of Fremont. I go to school at Wind River Elementary School and I am 11 years old. I have two brothers and two sisters. Three of them are in college and they are all over the age of 17. I love swimming and going to my Grandparent’s condo in Hawaii.

Dr. Jeremy M. Johnston

Jeremy Johnston is the Historian of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the Hal and Naoma Tate Endowed Chair of Western History, and the Managing Editor of The Papers of William F. Cody. Johnston attended the University of Wyoming, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in 1993 and his Master of Arts in 1995. Johnston earned his PhD in American Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2017.

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This episode was recorded in June 2021 with the most accurate information we had at that time. Please note that this episode may have some out of date information as a result, and we are aware COVID information is changing constantly. 

Why? Why, why? Why? Why? How do you think the vaccine will affect kids? 

Why? Why Why? How many different diseases have killed more than 500,000 people.

Welcome to the Kids Ask WhY podcast where kids ask the questions.

A production by Wyoming Public Media in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. 

HIRSCH: My name is Hirsch. What’s your name?

MADDILYN: Hi, my name is Maddilyn Smith, and I am nine years old. And I live in Green River, Wyoming. What is your topic?

HIRSCH: My topic is studying on how COVID will change Wyoming’s history and why.

MADDILYN: My topic is the COVID vaccine and why I am interested in that is because I want to learn how it affects the human body.

HIRSCH: Cool. What’s it like living in Green River?

MADDILYN: Sometimes it gets very cold. But this year, we have barely any snow. But in September, we had this huge snowstorm which blew out electricity in the whole town. Why do you like living in Pavilion, WY?

HIRSCH: The reason I like Pavilion is it has 234 people living in it. It’s tiny, and there are no people. Covid hasn’t affected Pavilion too much. It’s only affected the school which has a whopping 400 people, including the high school, middle school, preschool, and elementary school. Other than that it hasn’t really affected Pavilion at all because we’re so small

MADDILYN: We really don’t do as much stuff as we normally do. People aren’t walking outside and like the summer as they used to. And more people are like staying at home or getting the COVID vaccine.

Today I’m talking to Dr. Dowell, who’s the health officer for Natrona County. I am talking to him today because he knows a lot about COVID-19, and the vaccines.

How are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines different from the traditional vaccines?

Army Spc. Angel Laureano holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., Dec. 14, 2020. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

DR. DOWELL: Well, what’s neat about these vaccines, and they’ve never been used before like this, is that they have a special code a set of what’s called RNA, it’s like your genes. And they go into your body and they use your body’s factory to make the outside of the virus. Okay, remember the virus? Have you heard of those spikes that the virus has? Well, the vaccine says to your body, let’s make these spikes. But the virus is not a complete virus is just spikes. The immune system– right the defense system– the defense system sees the spikes, and it will remember it if the virus ever gets in. And that’s a new way of doing this. This is completely new. Normally what we do with a vaccine, you take a piece of a virus and you just put it into somebody. This is you take the genes of the virus and you make your own body fool itself. It’s really cool, and it’s safe.

MADDILYN: How do you think the vaccine will affect kids?

DR. DOWELL: I think it’ll be safe for kids. I don’t think they’ll have side effects when they get it. You know, in terms of you know, you might get a little sore arm like I did. But that’s it. And I think it’ll really help and you know why? Because most kids don’t get sick from COVID, do they? Most kids don’t. The worry we have is that if a kid has it and doesn’t know they have it. So let’s say you went and saw grandma and you didn’t know you had COVID, you could give it to grandma if grandma hasn’t had the vaccine, grandma could get really sick. Okay? So if you vaccinate the kids, then mom and dad and grandma and grandpa don’t get sick. And that’s the goal. So what if you were my kid? Would I give you the vaccine? Yes, yes, yes. Wouldn’t even hesitate

MADDILYN: How long will immunity last?

DR. DOWELL: That’s a that’s a very, very good question. And you know what the answer is? Do you have any idea? Neither do I? You know why? Because nobody knows. Not even the hairdresser. Here’s the reason. It hasn’t been around long enough. We’re going to find that out as we go. But if it’s like a lot of viruses, we will be protected for a long time. Am I optimistic? Do I think the future is going to be good for us? Yes. I do.

MADDILYN: Will the vaccine help us go back to the old days when we didn’t have to wear masks?

DR. DOWELL: Yes, it will. There are two things that will get us there. Well, three things. One is people wearing masks right now. Because we want to protect everybody around us and not get sick, so the virus has nobody to play with. The vaccines are going to help because they’re going to keep people from getting sick. And also those people that have already had COVID are also protected.

MADDILYN: How does the vaccine stop people from getting COVID?

DR. DOWELL: It’s all about the future. It’s all about your memory. You got to remember it so that if the virus gets there, you block him at the door. And it works. You know that it works 97% of the time. And even if it doesn’t work perfectly, it keeps you from getting really sick and it keeps you from ending up in the hospital. Do you realize when in November and December, I was taking care of up to 74 people in the hospital a day with COVID. Very, very sick. Very scary. Do you know how many are in the hospital today? Three. We went from 74 to three. Do you know why?

MADDILYN: Because people started wearing masks more, and started getting vaccines, and started staying home more.

DR. DOWELL: Yep. You know what the number one thing was? Masks. That’s what did it masks and hand washing. And it shows masks work and it saved a lot of lives in Wyoming.

HIRSCH: How many people in Wyoming have gotten COVID since the start that we know of?

DR. DOWELL: Over 100,000 people, but I can’t tell you how much more than that, because I haven’t seen the latest statistics but over 100,000 for sure.

HIRSCH: So at least a fifth of Wyoming’s population.

DR. DOWELL: Absolutely. And they a lot of them didn’t even know they got it. The places that have had the most: Rock Springs, Lander, Riverton, Gillette, Casper, Cheyenne, those are the places that have had the most.

HIRSCH: I used to live in Gillette, and I live near Lander and Riverton. So that’s like, triple kill for me.

DR. DOWELL: That’s right. And one other thing I forgot to tell you is I’m the County Health Officer for Casper and Natrona County, which means I’m involved with the state and looking at masking and how many cases we have and who gets the vaccine. But it’s very challenging because a lot of people got really mad at me, when I put in the mask orders. They wanted hit me upside the head. But I wouldn’t let them.

HIRSCH: So, they would rather get COVID and possibly die than wear a mask?

DR. DOWELL: That’s kind of what was being done, yeah. You know, I got to do a press conference. And I got booed off the stage.

HIRSCH: Um, I heard that in Lander, there was a new strain of COVID that was more contagious than the original. 

DR. DOWELL: That is accurate. That was seen in Rock Springs, too. And it was seen in Teton out in Jackson. And it is more contagious. It’s almost 50% more contagious, but it probably doesn’t kill more people, thankfully. But…

HIRSCH: Oh wait. Yeah, if it were 50% more contagious, 50% more people would be at the risk of death. Therefore the death toll from that COVID if they were side by side, no time over it, wouldn’t the one that’s more contagious be more deadly?

DR. DOWELL: Except the difference is, when you factor in the number of people that have already had COVID, let’s say on the Reservation, and you factor in how many people have been vaccinated, then it’s very much harder to tell how many people are going to die from it. Because remember, you don’t have the population that’s at the beginning. So, it’s a different population. And it depends on how many people you’re testing. Because unless you test everybody, you don’t know who has it. Because remember, half the people don’t know they have it. That’s why we need the vaccine because then we don’t care if the virus wants to change its clothes, because we’ll be protected.

MADDILYN: What I thought was most interesting is that the vaccine may be available, in a couple months, or years to kids, so that we can all go back to normal. Something that I learned about vaccines is that it helps your body know how to attack the COVID.

HIRSCH: Today, I am talking to Jeremy Johnson, who is a historian at Buffalo Bill Center of the West. He is talking to us today about the history of pandemics. How many different diseases have killed more than 500,000 people? You don’t have to be super specific.

JEREMY: You know, throughout the history of the world, we’ve recorded a number of major pandemics, probably the biggest was the Black Death or the bubonic plague. And they estimate that wiped out about half of the population of Europe at that time. So we’re talking, you know, 70 to 200 million people. One thing you got to learn about studying these past pandemics is back then, we didn’t have the Center for Disease Control. We didn’t have all these agencies keeping super detailed records. So we really don’t have a good understanding of how terrible some of these past epidemics really were. 

Boston Red Cross during the Spanish Flu 1918 CDC Photo

The Spanish Flu killed a lot of people. And they estimate that worldwide, it could have been as high as 100 million people. We’re not 100% sure, because keep in mind that you had all sorts of different countries represented a World War I, fighting in Europe. And when you bring a lot of people together like that, the disease spreads very easily. And we don’t know how many people left Europe that were infected, and went to places like India, Africa, and spread the disease there. People really didn’t know what was causing it. They tried their best to isolate themselves. A lot of communities basically forbid anybody from coming in. You couldn’t come into a town, until you waited somewhere for a couple weeks to prove you didn’t have any symptoms. Here in Wyoming, they actually had burning bans, you couldn’t burn your yard, your leaves or anything because they thought the smoke may have been spreading the disease. So they really had no idea and they’re doing their best to curtail it. And they did some things that we’re doing now. So a lot of people were wearing masks, social distancing themselves.

HIRSCH: So a lot like COVID. Can you list a couple of diseases that have hurt the Native American population brought by Europeans?

JEREMY: Disease, did more to shape the North American continent than anything else. When we look at the Indian Wars and the number of American Indians that were killed in those conflicts, it really pales in comparison to the number of American Indians that were killed by disease. Just north of Mexico, it was estimated that here in the modern day United States and Canada, we have from 2-18 million people living here before the Europeans arrived, before Columbus discovered- so called discovered- America. By the time all is said and done about 70 to 80% of that population was wiped out by disease. And that was smallpox, cholera, chickenpox, pneumonia, the flu, you name it. So it was very devastating. And they estimate, you know, North and South America both probably lost 85 to 90% of its population because of disease. 

HIRSCH: That’s a lot of people.

JEREMY: That is a lot of people and, you know, disease did more to open up land to European settlers than anything.

HIRSCH: How many Native American groups in Wyoming moved because of the disease?

JEREMY: Oh, that’s a hard one to answer. Probably all of them were motivated to a certain extent, by the disease. So let me ask you this. I’m going to ask you a question here. So how many immigrants do you think that were on the Oregon Trail were killed by Indians versus disease?

HIRSCH:  More by disease, no doubt.

JEREMY: You’re absolutely right. So about nine out of 10 of those Oregon Trail immigrants were killed by disease. And cholera was the number one epidemic. What we don’t know is how many American Indians were killed by cholera, because of the record. So and again, we’re not exactly sure the exact number of the immigrants on the Oregon Trail that died of cholera, we’re going off of journals and accounts there where they’d say, X number of accounts or X number of graves on the trail. But we know 1850 and 1852, were really bad years for cholera on the Oregon Trail.

HIRSCH: Why not 1851? 

JEREMY: Because everyone was scared after 1850, in 1851 they all stayed home. Again, so that was kind of a common defense, one we’re using today. If there’s a place that has a lot of disease, you stay away from it, isolate yourself.

HIRSCH: What were ways people tried that failed in the past to stop or slow the spread of diseases?

Plague doctor mask

JEREMY: One thing we’re fortunate is that we do know a lot more about this virus than people knew about the viruses they were encountering in the past. So today, we’re pretty fortunate with the medical technology we have, we have a better sense about how viruses are spread, and we can control it. So you know, back then, people just didn’t have any idea and you know, you probably seen the bubonic plague they got the funny masks with the long nose on it and everything.

HIRSCH: Um, didn’t they put like a perfume or flowers in the end of it, the masks? and, perfume? They thought that that it cleansed the air?

JEREMY: Yeah, I mean, they were desperate. They would find anything. Of course, what we’re finding out with COVID is it impacts people in different ways. So if I shoved a bunch of flowers up my nose and didn’t get COVID, okay, well, people are gonna say, “Well, he got saved by that,” and they’ll try it, but they’re going to be impacted by the disease differently than I am.

1918 Flyer in Cincinnati CDC Photo

HIRSCH: One of the major things I learned from him was how many more people died because of pandemics than I thought. Almost everything that they did in the past to prevent certain pandemics from a certain period of time, I feel like are worthless because they didn’t have modern medicine. Learning about the past, it both makes me more comfortable and less comfortable. Because I know in the past, they did know certain things that would help us to survive, but at the same time how bad some of those diseases got scares me a little. 

HIRSCH and MADDILYN: That’s why we ask why.