Elizabeth Meade, MD, FAAP
We have said it again and again; despite all the incredible challenges of the last 12 months, in strange ways the COVID era has also continued to provide opportunities to work more closely together, and even more passionately for kids. As pediatric clinicians across the state have seen the effects of the pandemic play out for children and families, our members have shared experiences, anecdotes, and data that illustrate the myriad ways in which kids and adolescents have suffered. While some children have thrived in virtual school, many have faced new or worsening anxiety and depression, suicidality, isolation from peers and support systems, learning loss, and mental health crises. WCAAP has been working for many months with our partners at the Department of Health, in the state legislature and the Governor’s office, and with schools and districts in order to provide guidance on how to bring children back to school safely. This spring, as we saw behavioral health crises and needs rise to heights we could never have imagined, our members and leaders rallied to collect data and share information. As we have done so many times in the last year, we pulled together to tell the collective story of Washington’s children and teens – a story that unfortunately showed that kids were showing up in emergency rooms and inpatient units in mental health crisis at more than double the typical rates, that suicide attempts and suicidal ideation were rampant, and that our patients needed resources immediately.
We were gratified and hopeful when our work with Governor Inslee’s office helped bring about an emergency proclamation to bring children back to school, especially the most vulnerable students and early learners. We have continued to share our data and expertise with districts and the Department of Health in order to update guidance on things like mitigation strategies and spacing requirements as we obtain ever more data showing that we can protect teachers, students, and staff in school settings and allow them to resume in-person learning when that is desired by the student and their family.
Forty-seven WCAAP members from 20 counties across Washington have volunteered to help schools with safe return-to-school and been trained by WCAAP’s return-to-school leaders. I want to extend my thanks to these volunteers and to WCAAP members Frank Bell, Danielle Zerr, Amy Carter and Maria Huang for their leadership to support our many volunteers and, in turn, schools.
WCAAP members and staff are also actively involved in Washington State’s disaster response to the children and youth behavioral health crisis, through our seats on the legislated Children & Youth Behavioral Health Work Group and the Northwest Health Care Response Network convening both inpatient and outpatient response groups. We are grateful for trustees Thatcher Felt and Bob Hilt, and members Sheryl Morelli, Mary King, Larry Wissow, and Jasmin Zavala for working with WCAAP and key state partners on rapid strategies to better support kids. Current strategies include supporting PCP skill and knowledge of crisis response and where to turn, better triage and visibility for emergency departments and inpatient units, and potential for behavioral health navigators in emergency departments and or primary care clinics. We will share specific resources as soon as available.
Now, as we move ahead into the last months of this school year and are already planning for summer camps and the 2021-22 academic year, we continue to provide updated information and education for our members. We will continue to respond to the evolving science as we enter this second year of pandemic life – hopefully a year filled with more optimism, vaccine doses, knowledge, and freedom than our last. Thank you, as always, for all that you are doing.