If older kids can spread the coronavirus as easily as adults, what does that mean for schools reopening?

·5 min read
Older children are likelier than younger children to spread the coronavirus, according to a large study. (Getty Images)
Older children are likelier than younger children to spread the coronavirus, according to a large study. (Getty Images)

Older kids are just as likely to spread the coronavirus as adults, according to a new South Korean study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

In the study, researchers analyzed contact tracing reports of 5,706 South Korean patients with COVID-19 and the more than 59,000 people they came into contact with during the period of Jan. 20 to March 27, 2020. On average, nearly 12 percent of people sharing the same household with someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus became infected themselves, compared with less than 2 percent of people who were not sharing a household when they came into contact with an infected patient.

“Higher household than non-household detection might partly reflect transmission during social distancing, when family members largely stayed home except to perform essential tasks, possibly creating spread within the household,” according to the study authors.

However, when the researchers grouped COVID-19 patients by age, some interesting data emerged: They found that children in the 10- to 19-year-old age group had the highest COVID-19 transmission rate (18.6 percent) when it came to infecting others in their household during school closure. In contrast, children ages up to 9 had the lowest rate of spreading the virus to their household contacts (5.3 percent).

According to the New York Times: “Children under 10 were roughly half as likely as adults to spread the virus to others, consistent with other studies. That may be because children generally exhale less air — and therefore less virus-laden air — or because they exhale that air closer to the ground, making it less likely that adults would breathe it in.”

In the study, the researchers wrote that “a contact survey in Wuhan and Shanghai, China, showed that school closure and social distancing significantly reduced the rate of COVID-19 among contacts of school-aged children.” (They also noted the limitations of the new study, including the fact that “detected cases could have resulted from exposure outside the household.”)

This latest research only adds more fuel to a fiery debate over whether or not to reopen schools in the late summer and fall — in particular, whether elementary schools should open for in-person lessons while middle and high schools do distance learning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines on reopening schools, issued in late June, stressed the importance of in-person learning while also mitigating the spread of COVID-19. The AAP noted that the virus “appears to behave differently in children and adolescents than other common respiratory viruses, such as influenza, on which much of the current guidance regarding school closures is based. Although many questions remain, the preponderance of evidence indicates that children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease resulting from SARS-CoV-2 infection.”

The AAP added: “In addition, children may be less likely to become infected and to spread infection.”

Although more research on the coronavirus infection and transmission rates of children and adolescents is still needed, Dr. Silvia Chiang, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, told the New York Times: “The findings currently are pointing to a likelihood that young children have a lower risk of becoming infected and maybe even a lower risk of transmitting.”

However, with coronavirus cases rising in several states (the U.S. broke its record for daily coronavirus cases on July 16, with more than 75,000 new infections reported), Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life that the risk of sending kids back to in-person school is “too great” at the moment.

“Science, not politics, must guide any plan to physically reopen our country’s schools,” Weingarten tells Yahoo Life. “With COVID-19 rates surging around the country and new information about the virus’s impact on kids emerging daily, we must recognize that we cannot ignore facts in favor of rushing to open all school buildings in August or September as if the virus didn’t exist. This is a public health fight and a moral one.”

Weingarten says that three steps need to happen before reopening in-person schools: “One, containing virus surge and appropriate testing to stop outbreaks from becoming surges. Two, implementation of the necessary safety measures to prevent virus spread in schools including physical distancing, masks, deep cleaning and ventilation. And, three, the resources to make this all happen.”

She adds: “Students across this country interact with hundreds of adults every day, including their educators, parents, grandparents and other caregivers, and allowing them back in schools to become potential hot spots of virus spread is, at this point, far too great a risk until caseloads go down and serious federal investments in safe and equitable reopening plans are made.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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