Caring for Children With Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome

When doctors began to recognize a serious inflammatory syndrome affecting children, apparently related in some way to Covid-19 infections, it was scary news for parents and pediatricians alike. Everyone had taken some comfort in the idea that this terrible and terrifying pandemic was in large part sparing the young.

Nobody could tell how common this new syndrome would turn out to be, and people worried that the surges of coronavirus infections and deaths among adults might be trailed by increasing numbers of children who had perhaps had mild or asymptomatic infections, but would later develop this mysterious illness.

Now, nearly two months after the first cases were reported, doctors can reassure parents that the syndrome remains rare, while continuing to urge vigilance. We do need to identify these rare children, because while they may start out with very common symptoms, they can become very sick — and also because we have therapies which seem to be working — which is the other cautiously positive news.

In the United States, we call the new pediatric inflammatory syndrome related to Covid-19 infection MIS-C, for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, while in Britain, it’s called PIMS-TS, for pediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome, temporally associated with SARS-CoV-2. The hallmarks of the syndrome include prolonged fever, without any clear cause, and a variety of symptoms of inflammation, including rash. Laboratory tests show marked inflammation.

The doctors taking care of these children around the world, pediatric hospitalists and intensivists, rheumatologists, infectious disease specialists, cardiologists, immunologists, are absorbed in the unusual experience of managing and figuring out a new syndrome, a new entity, a new disease. And as with other aspects of the current pandemic, clinical cooperation and medical research are happening on an unprecedented level.

Dr. Gail Shust, an associate professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at New York University School of Medicine, said that different specialties within the same hospital, and different hospitals across the city and around the world, are connecting on daily calls to discuss patients and therapies.

In New York City, Dr. Shust said, doctors are seeing a decline in these cases, though everyone is worried about what is going to happen in other states, as the pandemic flares.

The symptoms are common in any pediatric practice: fever, rash, upset stomachs. “When I get calls about kids with fever and rash, my thought process has changed, and I worry about things I didn’t worry about before,” said Dr. Leora Mogilner, an associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai who sees patients at their pediatric associates practice.

Back in March or April, if a child had vomiting and diarrhea, doctors sought to counsel parents on how to manage it at home. “Now we’re looking at it through a different lens,” Dr. Mogilner said. “We’re asking, did the child have Covid, or more usually a family member?”

If there’s any concern that a child is not looking well, she said, that child needs to come in, get vital signs checked, and get lab work done. “It’s very anxiety-provoking for pediatricians in primary care, and also for very seasoned parents,” she said.

Dr. Philip Kahn, a pediatric rheumatologist at New York University School of Medicine, said some need intensive care, and others have relatively mild disease and may not get treated at all. But even most of the sick ones do well, he said: “The vast majority need treatment, they’re treated, they go home,” he said.

More detailed reports are appearing, detailing the clinical presentation and the clinical course of these children. An article published this month in JAMA looked at 58 children hospitalized in England. The median age was 9 years old. All of the children had persistent fevers, ranging from 3 to 19 days, and 45 of them had evidence of current or past Covid-19 infection.

Dr. Michael Levin, who is professor of international child health at Imperial College London, who was the senior author on the study, said that the children fall into three groups. Most concerning are the group with critical illness, with shock and multi-organ failure, particularly affecting the heart muscle.

Then there is a group of children who don’t require intensive care, but meet criteria for Kawasaki disease, a different illness with a constellation of similar clinical features, including fever, rash, conjunctivitis, red swollen hands and feet, and swollen lymph nodes.

And finally, he said, there is a much larger group of children with persistent fever who may have one or two of those features, but whose laboratory results indicate a high degree of inflammation.

Gastrointestinal symptoms were common, with half of the children in the study having abdominal pain, and many with vomiting and diarrhea. Thirty of the 58 had rashes, 26 had conjunctivitis. Some had sore throats, headaches, red swollen hands and feet, swollen lymph nodes. And their blood tests showed elevated markers of inflammation.

Dr. Shust in New York was also struck, she said, by how many of the children there were coming in with gastrointestinal symptoms. “It’s really pretty severe and prolonged abdominal pain,” she said, “not just, ‘I have a tummy ache after I ate dinner,’” she said.

Some children with heart problems may complain of chest pain, Dr. Shust said, or they may have cardiac dysfunction discovered as they are checked for other symptoms. In Kawasaki disease, cardiac complications tend to come late, after the acute illness, but in MIS-C, she said, there may be problems early on.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.