Latest Research Points to Children Carrying, Transmitting Coronavirus

Researchers say new studies and anecdotal reports suggest kids are more vulnerable to the virus than initially suspected

Children might be more vulnerable to Covid-19 than once believed, with new research suggesting that they are able to contract and spread the virus, especially if they don’t take precautions such as wearing a mask.

Several studies and reports published in recent weeks found coronavirus infections among children of all ages at places ranging from schools to camps to homes. Other research suggested that kids, especially older ones, can be a driving force behind transmission. And some researchers found children carry high levels of Covid-19’s genetic material in their upper respiratory tract, which doesn’t mean they are transmitting the virus but that they potentially could.

Most of the studies have limitations, and more research is needed, experts say. Yet the new studies, together with reports of outbreaks among children at some schools overseas and a summer camp in Georgia, have persuaded many researchers that children aren’t as immune to Covid-19 as initially thought.

“Are they susceptible to catching the virus? Absolutely. Are they able to transmit the virus? Absolutely,” said Joelle Simpson, interim chief of emergency medicine at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The change in thinking comes as schools prepare to begin a new year, including some still deciding whether it would be safe for children to return to classrooms. President Trump and some members of his administration have urged schools to reopen

Some schools in the U.S. can likely safely reopen, researchers say, but the new findings suggest the facilities should proceed carefully. And, they added, schools should wait until community transmission is under control. They also should take steps that can reduce the risks for students and staff, such as widespread masking and frequent cleaning, along with social distancing and good ventilation, experts recommend.

A number of schools overseas have reopened with little incident after taking stringent precautionary steps. Without such actions, researchers warn, schools reopening in the U.S. could experience outbreaks like those that hit facilities in Israel and France. 

“Our schools are little mini microcosms of our cities that they’re in—what’s happening in cities is what’s going to happen in schools,” said Tina Hartert, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who is leading a study, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, exploring the infection rate in children and people they live with across nearly 2,000 households in the U.S.

“Until there is definitive data one way or the other, we have reason to believe from decades of data from other respiratory viruses that children are very good transmitters,” Dr. Hartert said. “There isn’t a lot of reason to believe that that wouldn’t be the case with this virus.”

About 97,000 new Covid-19 cases among children were reported in the two weeks ending July 30, a 40% increase from the total number of cases before the period began, according to a report published last month by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. More than seven out of 10 of the new cases among children were from states in the South and West. 

The definition of a child varied by state, and in a couple of cases, state-level data wasn’t complete. Still, the report found that since the onset of the pandemic until July 30, nearly 340,000 children have tested positive for Covid-19, or 8.8% of all reported cases.

Several factors contributed to the initial thinking that children were less affected by Covid-19. The virus might not have spread among many children during the early months, in part because schools were closed, playgrounds were locked up and kids were at home.

In addition, Covid-19 cases in children appear to become serious less frequently than in adults.

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