beastfromeast / Getty images
At least 97,000 children were tested positive for coronavirus in the last two weeks of July, according to a new state-of-the-art data collection from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. The increase represents a 40% increase in the country’s total cumulative issues.
“I think it shows that, yes, children can get infected and can spread the infection,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Colorado Children’s Hospital and vice chair of the Infectious Diseases Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The report comes as schools across the country are dealing with when and how to reopen for sure – with those decisions being increasingly politicized. President Trump has tried to pressure the country’s K-12 schools to reopen, threatening to withhold federal funds and falsely claiming in an interview last week in Fox & Friends that “children are almost, I almost would definitely say, but almost immune from this disease.”
This new report reiterates that children are not, in fact, immune to this disease.
Since the onset of the pandemic, at least 340,000 children have tested positive for the coronavirus, representing approximately 9% of cases in the US to date. The increase in child cases, according to the report, was driven mainly by states in the South and West, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Montana and Alaska.
The report comes with some important warnings. The push in cases is partly due to a test. Different states also define a “child” differently. For data reporting purposes, most states use an age range between 0-17 and 0-19, but, in Tennessee and South Carolina, the interruption is 20. In Alabama, it is 24. Also, according to the report, the number of Positive tests among children can be much higher due to incomplete reporting from New York and Texas. In fact, Texas secured age distribution for only 8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases and was excluded from many of the report’s findings.
If there is good news in such a report, it is that, despite rising levels of infection in children, the data also show that most children do not become critically ill with the disease and that, among states that reported hospital data, the rate of child hospitalization remains low, at 2%. What is less clear is that children would effectively spread the virus in a classroom environment, not only to friends and classmates, but also to teachers and school staff.
Data from South Korea suggest that children under the age of 10 may not spread the disease easily, but that adolescents do – perhaps as effectively as adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers another warning story for schools considering reopening: In late June, the disease spread rapidly among staff and children in a dormant camp in Georgia. Within a few days, at least 260 teenage campers and staff were tested positive. Interestingly, of the campers tested, the youngest campers, aged 6 to 10, had the highest rate of infection: Fifty-one percent tested positive.
In recent weeks, school districts across the country have announced their plans for the fall. Last week, Chicago became the last major city district to announce it would not allow students to return to classes due to a recent rise in coronavirus rates there.
“While Chicago remains in a better place than many other regions of the country,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Department of Public Health of agoikago, “these latest trends are very worrying.”
But in many communities, the decision to reopen schools is being driven by politics, not local public health conditions. In Florida and Texas, some public health officials have reportedly been sidelined by state leaders who have been outspoken in their desire for schools to reopen quickly.
In a recent review of school reopening plans and local voting trends, Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution found no statistically significant relationship between reopening decisions and new COVID-19 county per capita cases. Instead, he found that “on average, districts that have announced plans to reopen in person, are located in counties in which 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared [with] “35% in districts that have announced plans for distance learning only.”
Last week, students at North Paulding High School in Georgia posted photos and videos showing crowded school corridors and some students wearing face masks. Although the district is on the outskirts of Atlanta, where the infection rate remains relatively high, schools reopened for in-person instruction last week. However, this weekend, the school reported that six students and three staff members tested positive for the coronavirus and that the in-class class would temporarily move online to give the school time to disinfect.
What does all this mean for schools?
“In countries where there is really good virus control,” O’Leary said, “with mitigation measures in place, I think it is certainly reasonable to open schools. We will never reach zero risk.”
New York City is a prime example of a school district planning to partially reopen its schools this fall because the wider community followed safety guidelines and dramatically reduced infection rates, with 1% of coronavirus tests now resulting positive.
But in countries where the virus is still spreading widely, O’Leary said, this new data is an important reminder that reopening schools may not be safe. If the coronavirus is circulating in a community, he said, it is inevitable that it will follow students and staff at the school.