Children are just as likely to become infected with COVID as adults, study warns

SALT LAKE CITY — A common misunderstanding is that children have a lower risk of becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Now, research led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that most individuals, regardless of age, are equally prone to infection. However, a substantially higher percentage of younger people with the virus exhibit no signs.

“Often, it seemed like children weren’t sick because they didn’t have any symptoms,” says Christina Porucznik, Ph.D., professor of public health at the University of Utah Health. She led the investigation of 189 families in Utah. “But some were actually infected, and they could still spread COVID-19.”

Preliminary studies on the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that children constituted a fraction of the total number of infections. Unfortunately, the study was unable to differentiate between two possible outcomes. One outcome could be that children had lower susceptibility to illness than adults. The other possible outcome was that the recorded statistics of infected children were deceptively lower compared to adults since children did not exhibit any symptoms and, as a result, were not examined.

Researchers also used data from families in Colorado and New York, where investigators monitored 310 homes having at least one child aged 17 or younger. COVID cases were detected by periodically testing each volunteer for viral particles. The sample size consisted of roughly 1,240 volunteers, who also filled out assessments every week regarding their symptoms. During the trial, which lasted from September of 2020 to April of 2021, each individual was assessed for an average of 17 weeks.

There were no significant differences in the incidence of infection between children and individuals over the age of 18. Children as young as four were infected at the same rate as children between the ages of five and 17. More than 80% of the infected adults showed symptoms, however, only 50% of infected children were symptomatic.

In families including one or many sick persons, the risk of infection for the entire household was 52%. According to cities where the trial took place, this risk was 40% and 80% in Utah and New York City, respectively.

All of this research was done prior to the appearance of the Delta strain. Scientists believe the onset of the Delta strain could have altered the speed of infection from house to house, as well as, the number of family members per home. To determine this, the team must carry out additional research within both cities. Moreover, the trial individuals may have been more preventative regarding the spread of the virus as opposed to other individuals in the general public. This could result in an increased risk of infection and transmission rates for those who are outside of the study.

In children, most illnesses go unnoticed, highlighting the necessity for them to be screened regularly. Additionally, it is important for them to use proper preventative practices to help safeguard others close to them such as family members. “We know that until kids can be vaccinated, it’s still important for them to wear masks when they’re in groups and to keep them apart,” says Porucznik. “And most of all, when they are sick, keep them home.”

These findings are published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.