During the initial surge of COVID-19, Americans generally accepted the fact that children pose a low infection risk to others. However, as time has gone on, research suggests that children may play a much larger role in community spread than previously believed. Here’s what we know… and still need to understand.
What Does the Research Show?
Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Mass General Hospital for Children recently published a study in the Journal of Pediatrics. Their data found that of 192 children, 49 tested positive for the coronavirus. The age of the children ranged from zero to 22. They all were brought to an urgent care clinic or hospital with COVID-19 symptoms or due to contact with an infected individual.
But the most important- and dangerous- conclusion from this data related to the presence of coronavirus infection: The 49 children who tested positive had significantly higher levels of virus in their airways than hospitalized adults in the intensive care unit.
“Kids are not immune from this infection, and their symptoms don’t correlate with exposure and infection,” said Dr. Alessio Fasano, senior author and director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Researcher Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Children May Be “Silent Spreaders”
Scientists already know from other well-established respiratory diseases that children are vectors in the community. The most obvious example of this fact is the school environment, where every winter children pass the cough, cold, and flu around the classroom to each other and their teachers.
However, in response to COVID-19, “we mainly screened symptomatic subjects, so we have reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults,” Fasano explained. “We should not discount children as potential spreaders for this virus.”
The Massachusetts General research team considered this and challenged the belief that children are less likely to get sick from COVID-19- or pass it along to others- based on their lower number of virus receptors.
While it’s true that children have fewer virus receptors than adults, the study authors found that children still carried high levels of the virus. They concluded that children are more contagious, even if they’re asymptomatic. In fact, only half of the children in the study who tested positive for COVID-19 had a fever, causing experts to question growing reliance on non-contact thermal scanners as an infection control tool.
“How likely are you to pick up every case of COVID? The answer is only 50% of the time,” said Dr. Robert DeBiasi, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C. “You still have to put in all those other measures to try to prevent spread (because) children will be missed from screening methods.”
As the debate over reopening schools continues in full force, this data may prove an important point of consideration for state government and local officials.