As schools across the US prepare to reopen this month, new information suggests that there may be more risks associated with face to face classes than initially suspected. A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that children under the age of five can carry up to 100 times greater levels of coronavirus in their noses than adults.
“I’ve heard lots of people saying, ‘Well, kids aren’t susceptible, kids don’t get infected.’ And this clearly shows that’s not true,” virologist Stacey Schultz-Cherry told The New York Times. “I think this is an important, really important, first step in understanding the role that kids are playing in transmission.”
This information does bring into question the return to school and, especially, daycare this month. Many children who have the virus may not appear sick and, therefore, could play an integrative role in spreading the virus unknowingly.
“The school situation is so complicated — there are many nuances beyond just the scientific one,” study leader and pediatric infectious disease expert Taylor Heald-Sargent said. “But one takeaway from this is that we can’t assume that just because kids aren’t getting sick, or very sick, that they don’t have the virus.”
However, pediatric infectious diseases specialist Alison Tribble noted that this study doesn’t specify how contagious the children carrying the virus actually are.
“Even if it holds true that children carry as much or more of the virus than adults, that does not automatically mean they are contagious or are likely to spread the disease,” Tribble said. “We don’t fully understand the extent to which kids can fuel transmission, but studies like this indicate that it’s certainly possible that they have a role. It reminds us of how much is still unknown about this virus.”
Schultz-Cherry echoed this, explaining that some RNA viruses in children may represent “defective” viruses, incapable of infecting cells.
“We need to understand how much of that is actually infectious virus,” she said.
A recent study in South Korea supported this line of thinking, showing that younger children while carrying more of the virus in their respiratory tract, may actually be less responsible for infecting others. The study determined that children between the ages of 10 and 19 transmitted the virus as much as adults, while children under nine were less likely to transmit within their households.
However, the authors of the JAMA Pediatrics study did not support this claim, citing that a recent lab study revealed that the more viral genetic material was present, the more infectious virus could be grown.
“Thus, young children can potentially be important drivers of SARS-CoV-2 spread in the general population,” they said. Additionally, there are growing concerns about children’s’ ability to social distance while in a school setting.
“Behavioral habits of young children and close quarters in school and daycare settings raise concern for SARS-CoV-2 amplification in this population as public health restrictions are eased,” the study authors wrote.
Regardless, with schools moving forward with the reopening, it’s important to continue following protocols recommended by the CDC. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a letter with this warning:
“Any region experiencing moderate, high, or increasing levels of community transmission should do everything
“Any region experiencing moderate, high, or increasing levels of community transmission should do everything possible to lower transmission. Such measures along with universal mask-wearing must be implemented now in the US if we are to bring case numbers down to safe levels for elementary schools to reopen this fall nationwide.”