The rate of COVID-19 transmission for kids age 10 and over can be just as high as it is for adults. Getty Images
  • Recent research has found that kids can spread COVID-19 more easily than previously thought.
  • One study that analyzed nearly 60,000 contact points from 5,706 patients with COVID-19 found that the rate of transmission for children age 10 and over can be just as high as adults.
  • Another study found that children under the age of 5 have a higher viral load of the disease than older children and adults, which may suggest they carry a greater risk of transmission.

As the reopening of schools and daycares during the pandemic continues to be a hotly debated subject, new research shows that children are not as resilient to COVID-19 as many previously believed.

A study from South Korea analyzed nearly 60,000 contact points from 5,706 patients with COVID-19.

Not only did the researchers find that the use of personal protective measures, such as masks, and physical or social distancing reduces the likelihood of transmission, they also found that the rate of transmission for children age 10 and over can be just as high as adults.

The researchers did note that children age 9 and under seemed to have the lowest rate of transmission, but that risk still existed.

Researchers even hypothesized the rate of transmission for this age group may go up as daycares and preschools begin to open again.

In fact, another study from Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago backs up that hypothesis.

Researchers from that study found that children under the age of 5 have a higher viral load of the disease than older children and adults, which may suggest they carry a greater risk of transmission.

What we know about the risks of COVID-19 to kids

As our knowledge of COVID-19 has increased, so has our understanding of how the disease affects children.

“For the most part, kids seem to have milder symptoms than adults,” explained Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and CEO of Happiest Baby. “However, there have been some cases where kids get really sick.”

He pointed to one concerning COVID-19 complication that has come to light in recent months: pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Symptoms of this complication include:

  • high fever
  • fatigue
  • extreme irritability
  • fever lasting 3 or more days
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • vomiting
  • neck pain
  • trouble breathing
  • chest pressure

While this complication is rare and treatable, it can have serious, long-term effects.

Over the course of approximately 2 months of data, 80 percent of children who developed pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome required treatment in the ICU, with the median hospital stay being 7 days. Two percent of those children died.  

But Karp urged parents to be aware that there are additional risks to consider as well.

“It’s important to remember that even if a child has a minor case, they could transmit it to the rest of their family. If COVID puts their parents out of commission, that has big-time consequences for their child’s well-being, too,” he said.

The risk of reopening schools

Little kids are total amateurs when it comes to self-control, boundaries, and hygiene,” said Karp. “They’re curious and love to explore the world with their hands, and, for babies and toddlers, with their mouths.”

As schools prepare to open their doors, teachers and administrators are searching for ways to do so safely. And they may be looking to camps that opened this summer for answers.

However, many of those camps found that keeping kids safe wasn’t as easy as they had hoped it would be. Despite following guidelines, 7 camps canceled sessions with at least 191 staffers and children testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s news that doesn’t bode well for schools and daycares hoping to reopen soon, particularly in states like Florida where cases in children age 17 and under have increased by 34 percent, and COVID-19 related hospitalizations for this age group have increased by 23 percent.

Raising additional concerns for the safety of very young children is the fact that one Texas county recently reported that 85 infants under the age of 1 tested positive for COVID-19.

Reopening schools, particularly for younger children, does have greater challenges than many parents may realize.

Karp said that children in a school setting may have a hard time giving their classmates physical space and may not yet be hand-scrubbing superstars.

“Plus, little kids can have yucky habits (like nose-picking and thumb-sucking) that can speed the spread of germs and boost their own exposure to infection,” Karp said.

He also pointed out that getting young kids to keep their masks on could prove to be a difficult task for teachers.

“All of these behaviors can help viruses travel from kid to kid… which makes opening schools and letting kids play together risky while community spread is spiking,” he said.

Our understanding of COVID-19 is still evolving

As everyone becomes increasingly anxious for a return to normal, it’s understandable that some may be frustrated by the changing information we have about this disease.

Dr. Jennifer E. Schuster, pediatric infectious diseases physician at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, Missouri, understands that frustration and the confusion all this rapidly changing information can cause.

“However,” Schuster explained, “new information allows us to make better recommendations and better take care of our children and families.”

She encourages people to look to verified sources for the latest updates, identifying the CDC website, local public health departments, and even your own medical practitioner as the best sources of information.

In the meantime, Schuster said protecting kids is the same as protecting adults.

“Children should physically distance, and those who are 2 years old and older should wear a mask. Children should practice hand hygiene correctly and frequently, just like adults,” she said, pointing out that establishing these practices at home can help better equip your children to protect themselves when they’re out in the world.

“We have learned a lot in the last 8 months about COVID-19, and we will continue to learn more, which will help us take better care of our community,” Schuster said. “It is our job to mitigate risks, so we can continue to take care of everyone: from infants to adults.”

To that end, she recommends parents and teachers alike look to Children’s Mercy guidance for school reopenings.

COVID-19 is a serious disease,” Schuster said. “Although children are at lower likelihood to have serious illness, many people in the community do get very sick. It is everyone’s responsibility to help decrease the spread of COVID-19, including children.”

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