Since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in Wuhan, China, it has been clear that the virus does not impact children the same way it does adults and the elderly. Initially, health experts believed children were almost immune to the highly infectious virus, as very few even showed symptoms. However, over the last several months it has become clear that is not the case, with at least 406,000 confirmed cases of the virus in children as of August 13. A new study also confirms something researchers have been suspecting for a while: that children are 'silent spreaders' of the virus, spreading it at a similar rate as adults.
"Kids are Not Immune"
The new study, published Thursday in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that out of 192 children aged 0 to 22 who arrived at an urgent care clinic or hospital with a suspected COVID infection, 49 tested positive for the coronavirus. Even more worrisome is that their airways were harboring significantly higher levels of virus than hospitalized adults in intensive care units.
"Kids are not immune from this infection, and their symptoms don't correlate with exposure and infection," Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and senior author of the manuscript said in a supplementary article to the study.
Dr. Fasano also pointed out that not all of the children were symptomatic, and many of them were brought in to be tested due to coming into contact with an infected person or lived in a high risk area.
"During this COVID-19 pandemic, we have mainly screened symptomatic subjects, so we have reached the erroneous conclusion that the vast majority of people infected are adults. However, our results show that kids are not protected against this virus. We should not discount children as potential spreaders for this virus."
They are Dubbed "Silent Spreaders"
Dr. Fasano and his team from Massachusetts General Hospital and Mass General Hospital for Children point out in their study that while children have fewer virus receptors than adults, they are still carrying high levels of the virus. They believe that because of this, children are actually more contagious than adults, dubbing them "silent spreaders."
Another interesting finding from the study is that only half of the children who tested positive developed a fever. Thus, non-contact thermal scanners being used as a protective tool at schools could be missing half of the actual infections.
The team also studied immune response in MIS-C — a multi-organ, systemic infection that can develop in children with COVID-19 several weeks after infection — that can result in cardiac problems, shock and acute heart failure. "This is a severe complication as a result of the immune response to COVID-19 infection, and the number of these patients is growing," Fasano stated. "And, as in adults with these very serious systemic complications, the heart seems to be the favorite organ targeted by post-COVID-19 immune response."
The researchers hope their findings will encourage schools to take serious precaution when reopening schools, abiding by infection control measures including "social distancing, universal mask use (when implementable), effective hand-washing protocols and a combination of remote and in-person learning." They also urge that students continue to be screened for the virus, with "timely reporting of the results."
"This study provides much-needed facts for policymakers to make the best decisions possible for schools, daycare centers and other institutions that serve children," says Fasano. "Kids are a possible source of spreading this virus, and this should be taken into account in the planning stages for reopening schools." Keep that in mind when making your fall plans, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.