CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Alyssa Reevey Simons’ family had COVID-19 in March, but the Charlotte teenager was asymptomatic and seemed to be doing fine.
On May 23 — her 15th birthday — the North Mecklenburg High School freshman started complaining of back and stomach pain. She lost 40 pounds in a week and her bowel movements were bloody, Alyssa’s mother, Shernett Reevey, said.
Doctors at Levine Children’s Hospital diagnosed Alyssa with multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a condition linked to COVID-19. She spent 10 days in the hospital before returning home on June 18.
On June 28, Alyssa’s family found her dead in her bedroom.
“She was a lovely girl,” Reevey told The Charlotte Observer recently.
No one in the family had been vaccinated for COVID-19 before showing symptoms, and Alyssa wasn’t eligible for a shot when she got the virus in March.
Reevey wasn’t vaccinated then, but after what happened to her daughter, she’s now received her first shot.
“Everybody’s just walking around like a pandemic didn’t just happen,” she said. “It’s going to get worse.”
There have been 4,196 MIS-C cases and 37 deaths reported in the United States as of June 28, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of July 8, there have been 177 MIS-C cases reported in North Carolina, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported.
At least one other person has died of MIS-C in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic, according to NCDHHS.
With children returning to school next month, Alyssa’s aunt said she’s worried health officials aren’t being vocal enough about how COVID-19 could trigger MIS-C in youth — even if they don’t exhibit symptoms immediately.
“Kids are having COVID-19 and us parents don’t even know,” Yolanda Johnson said.
‘A very peaceful child’
Alyssa was a quiet, skateboarding and Japanese anime fan who also loved Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and fashion, her mother said. Alyssa also hugged everyone she met, Reevey said.
“She was a very peaceful child,” she said.
Alyssa would practice her fashion designer skills by dressing up her 3D avatar on IMVU, a smartphone application that allows friends to hang out virtually.
Reevey has stayed in touch with Alyssa’s friends, who she says often call to offer support.
Alyssa began researching MIS-C after her diagnosis, as did her mother. From her findings, Reevey learned that many children don’t survive MIS-C, which made her try to keep Alyssa from researching the condition.
“I used to tell her to stop being scared and researching because it’s going to become a mental thing and your body is going to believe it,” she said. “I just had to find a way for her to get her mind off of it.
MIS-C ‘came out of the blue’
MIS-C isn’t well understood because it’s only been prevalent over the last year, Dr. Louis E. Daugherty, a pediatric critical care specialist at Novant Health, said. MIS-C tends to be different in adults, and it isn’t as potentially life-threatening compared to COVID-19, he said.
Children have very active immune systems, which could trigger MIS-C because their immune response is fighting off COVID-19 “almost too good,” Daugherty said.
“It kind of overreacts more than it should, and so the thought is, it’s actually that immune response potentially that is so overactive that it’s just reacting to that previous COVID infection a little too much,” he said. “Whenever your body overreacts to something it actually can cause self harm.”
Because MIS-C “kind of came out of the blue,” Daugherty said doctors may often mistake it with toxic shock syndrome or another similar disease.
Daugherty said the number of MIS-C patients entering Novant Health peaked in January and February, because those months coincided with Charlotte’s peak of COVID-19 cases in November. He said patients, typically 10 to 15 years of age, would come back into the hospital two to six weeks later with MIS-C symptoms.
The median age of patients with MIS-C in the United States is 9 years old, and half of the children with the illness are between the ages of 5 and 13, according to the CDC. Of these patients, 99% tested positive for SARS CoV-2 —the virus that causes COVID-19 — while the remaining 1% had contact with someone with the virus.
The biggest concern for MIS-C patients is heart failure, Daugherty said.
“Their heart just kind of gives out and they need extra support from a cardiac and heart standpoint to keep their blood pressure up and them breathing,” he said.
‘It only makes sense’
On May 10, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents as young as 12 years old.
Of the children in the United States under 18 years of age, 13.1% have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 10.1% are fully vaccinated, according to Mayo Clinic. In North Carolina, 11% of children under the age of 18 have received at least one dose, while 8.2% are fully vaccinated.
Alyssa caught COVID-19 in March, two months before a vaccine was available for someone her age.
Reevey has three other children, but they’re under the age of 12 and cannot get the vaccine.
Johnson said the majority of her family are either fully or halfway vaccinated.
“In order for the families to be protected all the way around, getting vaccinated is the only thing that you can do to try to protect your child and your family,” she said. “ It only makes sense in order to get full protection.”
Daugherty said vaccines are working and that Novant has seen fewer MIS-C patients over the last several months. He said adults should get vaccinated to promote herd immunity, which would prevent children from contracting COVID-19 and spreading it.
“If those kids are around a bunch of people that are vaccinated, then they’re less likely to get COVID, which means they’re less likely to get MIS-C,” he said.
Johnson is encouraging parents, especially in the Black community, to research MIS-C and find out the condition’s symptoms so they can detect and prevent it early. Whether it’s chapped lips, abdominal pain, a sore back or bloody bowel movements, she said parents should take their children to the doctor immediately and warn possible contacts if they’re exhibiting any symptoms.
“We really think that it’s important we spread the word because nobody knows of this,” Johnson said. “If we can help save a child’s life then it’ll make a difference.”
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