Young children are extremely unlikely to suffer from serious complications from COVID-19. It’s strange. No one fully understands why. But you know what? I am sold. It’s been a tough year – let’s take our wins where we can. Especially when, as several media have reported in recent weeks, this is good news for many parents for a likely long period of time when they will be vaccinated, but not their children.
Before I started planning my parenting lifestyle after vaccination, I wanted to understand another aspect of risk: the role my unvaccinated children could play in achieving the other people sick. In the United States, only about 31.6% of eligible people were fully vaccinated by Monday morning, and that number varies greatly from location to location – 23.8% of Alabamians were fully vaccinated compared to 40.2% of Mainers, and you can assume that counties and cities exhibit this same type of variation. That leaves a lot of people who can still contract COVID-19, and I wondered if young children might end up being a channel that allows COVID-19 to move through the population even as vaccination rates increase.
How COVID-19 vaccines work
As with many aspects of COVID-19, this question does not yet have absolute and unequivocal answers. When I asked Yair Goldberg, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who studies the spread of COVID-19 in that country, he said his team was not yet ready to talk about the data they was collecting. Even a year later, we’re still learning as we go.
But other researchers have told me the evidence suggests elementary school children are not a major driver of the spread of COVID-19 in communities – at least, provided they follow mitigation strategies. like wearing a mask.
For example, even after many school districts were open for a while last fall and the number of cases rose sharply, a study modeling the spread of COVID-19 in the United States found that children 9 and under were only responsible for about 5 children. percentage of transmissions occurring at that time. And these results are consistent with what researchers are seeing in other countries. In the UK, children can and do get infected and spread COVID-19, said Rosalind Eggo, professor and infectious disease modeler at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But so far, she said, cases in children are not increasing before cases in adults, a sign that would indicate they are the ones causing the infection.
The fact that children do not appear to be a primary source of COVID-19 transmission is a bright spot in this sad and sorry year. It could very easily be a different situation. After all, the flu works exactly the opposite way, said Oliver Ratmann, professor of statistics at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the American Modeling Study. With the flu, he told me, children are both more susceptible to the virus and more likely to pass it on. In addition, he says, they tend to have more contact than adults, thanks to spending their days in school or daycare.
If COVID-19 spread like the flu, a community where none of the children and the majority of adults were yet fully immunized would be in difficulty. Unvaccinated and unmasked children playing together outdoors, going to restaurants or movies with their vaccinated parents, and traveling on vacation to other communities would pose a significant risk to many people besides themselves.
So, it’s a pretty big relief that it doesn’t, and we see that fact echoed in new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that categorizes unvaccinated people (including children) hanging around unmasked, outside in the most secure. category – as long as the people they are all vaccinated with. That said, risks remain. Young children do transmitting the virus, and variants like the more transmissible B.1.1.7 lineage, increase the likelihood of children spreading COVID-19. It’s also important to note that these low rates of children transmitting COVID-19 are very dependent on behavioral changes – in particular, wearing masks indoors. A brand new study released Thursday found that risk reduction strategies such as teachers wearing masks, children wearing masks, daily symptom checking and canceling extracurricular activities like sports made the difference between in-person education that spreads COVID-19 from children to their families. and in-person schooling which has not significantly increased the spread of COVID-19.
All of this means that vaccinated parents shouldn’t treat their unvaccinated children as extensions of themselves, said Dr William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. There will be situations where two vaccinated adults can safely spend time without a mask, but their unvaccinated children cannot.
It’s also true that the more adults get vaccinated, the more cases of COVID-19 will concentrate in young children – simply because that’s increasingly the only place the virus stays. Researchers have also found this in the UK, said Edward Goldstein, senior epidemiology researcher at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Children aged 5 to 12 are now the group with the highest infection rate in the UK
Experts like Raszka say kids unmasked on the outside – unless they’re in a large, tight group – is probably fine. But masking indoors remains an important way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among unvaccinated people of all ages. Ultimately, the extent to which the lives of your children can reasonably be changed has a lot to do with how locked in your family so far. If your kids have been masked everywhere, inside and out, the fact that more adults are getting vaccinated and experts say the outside is safer than previously thought will look like to a reprieve. If you’ve already lost the masks months ago, the good news may not seem so good to you.