After months of warring against a virus that seems to have taken over the world, governments are having to make the decision about whether to let kids go to school or not. Many experts argue that keeping kids at home –coupled with their parents’ job loss and added stress – has led to spikes in domestic violence. It also has a negative impact on kids’ social and educational development. Not to mention, many children rely on schools for meals that they may not otherwise receive. Viewed from that angle, reopening schools seems like the obvious choice. However, scientists are still struggling to figure out a lot about this virus – including how it affects and may be transmitted by children
“Overall, scientists don’t fully understand why multiple kinds of coronaviruses—including COVID-19 and its viral cousins SARS and MERS—have different levels of severity across age ranges”, Sarah Gibbens quotes Rachel Graham, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for National Geographic.
While initially, it seemed that kids were spared the brunt of the COVID-19 symptoms that hit adults, as they start returning to schools – and with increased global testing –the number of children falling ill has started to balloon. The majority of children, it appears, have mild or symtoms.
According to an article published by Bloomberg, despite the fact that the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website that kids under 18 make up only 2% of cases, state testing data seems to be indicating otherwise. For example, California and Mississippi are recording rates nearing 10% of overall cases, while Florida data shows that about a third of all children tested in the state are infected. Despite seeing more children infected with the virus, our understanding of why their symptoms differ from that of adults – and why so many of them show no symptoms at all doesn’t seem to have advanced much.
It’s also still not clear how children spread it. Gibbens cites a massive South Korean study of almost 65,000 kids which found that children aged 10- to 19-years-old could spread COVID-19 within a household just as effectively as adults could. In fact, kids might be far more likely to transmit things (they’re usually the primary drivers of influenza) because of the way they interact with each other and the world around them – through touch.
Counterintuitively, though, the South Korean study found that children under the age of ten –who tend to touch things the most – don’t seem to spread the virus as much as teenagers do. Gibbens writes that one theory for why this may be the case lies in the fact that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through respiratory droplets. “COVID-19 primarily spreads through the droplets you breathe out, and children may breathe out with less force, and closer to the ground”.
Other data suggests that, unlike influenza, SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools may be less important in community transmission than was feared when schools began to close in the first place.
But, really, nobody knows very much and it’ still mostly guesswork.
Fortunately, children – for the most part– seem to avoid severe symptoms a lot more often than adults do. There are multiple theories as to why (see above graphic), but none that are very concrete. Despite young kids recovering far more easily than adults on average, there are still far too many unknowns for parents to rest easy. Scientists are still unsure about what the longterm effects of COVID-19 on children may look like – it’s still such a new disease that we have no prior cases to draw our information from.
“Just because somebody doesn’t die from this doesn’t mean that something bad doesn’t happen to them,” the Bloomberg article quotes Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “Think about cancer. A cancer could have a tumor developing over 10 to 20 years, and you don’t know.”
Futhermore, A small number of kids who test positive for COVID-19 go on to develop a life-threatening condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), and it’s its also unknown if this disease will have other long-term consequences.
It’s generally agreed the world over – for now – that the indirect effects of this pandemic may be more serious than the disease itself. UNICEF data shows that this crisis could increase the number of children living in monetary poor households by up to 117 million by the end of the 2020 and that indirect effects on their survival from strained health systems, and disruptions to care-seeking and preventative interventions like vaccination are “substantial and widespread”.
It’s definitely a relief that the the direct effects of COVID-19 on children still seem relatively mild and rarely fatal, but that doesn’t mean parents can be complacent when it comes to hygiene and social distancing. Though a toddler may not feel the effects of the virus, he or she may still spread it to a number of other people who will. The longer this virus continues to spread, the more it exacerbates all those indirect consequences that do impact children across the globe.
Overcoming this virus is a team effort. Don’t be an asshole. Give your kid a mask too.