Doctors predict children likely won’t cause COVID-19 outbreaks, urge schools to reopen

Authors: “The key takeaway is that children are not driving the pandemic … it is congregating adults who aren’t following safety protocols who are responsible for driving the upward curve.”

BURLINGTON, Vt. — As the dog days of summer near closer to the fall, questions about how public schools will open abound. Doctors still have many questions about COVID-19, but new research reveals helpful clues about how it spreads. Despite fears about reopening schools, the two medical doctors behind the review believe children are not the cause of most outbreaks.

Pediatric disease specialists from the University of Vermont find it’s fairly uncommon for children to spread the disease to other kids or to adults. With that in mind, if kids aren’t the ones spreading coronavirus, the authors recommend schools should reopen this fall. Of course, they emphasize this being the case if transmission rates are low and critical safety measures are put in place.

Coronavirus and children

Dr. Benjamin Lee and Dr. William Raszka reviewed several studies from around the world to examine the viral transmission rates of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, among children and their families. The studies use contact tracing to identify who is actually transmitting the virus and causing outbreaks.

In data from a Swiss study, researchers say only three children were “patient zero” out of 39 families diagnosed with COVID-19. In the other cases, the children were likely infected by an adult.

Two Chinese studies also report the same trend. One study of 68 children hospitalized with COVID-19 shows that 96 percent became ill after coming into contact with an infected adult. The other study says only one in 10 children at a hospital outside Wuhan was infected by another child.

The authors also address the recent surge of infections in Texas. Although many children have coronavirus, the study argues that the behavior of many adults is driving the new outbreaks.

“There is widespread transmission of Covid-19 in Texas today, with many adults congregating without observing social distancing or wearing masks,” Dr. Raszka says in a university release. “While we don’t yet know the dynamics of the outbreak, it is unlikely that infants and children in daycare are driving the surge. Based on the evidence, it’s more plausible that adults are passing the infection to the children in the vast majority of cases.”

The argument to open schools

Lee and Raszka add that two other studies reveal the relative safety of reopening schools. Although children can spread viruses to each other in class, the evidence shows schools are not a hot zone for COVID-19.

One French study looking at over 80 school children with exposure to the virus by a classmate finds none of them have COVID-19. Although researchers say kids are not spreading coronavirus, the flu and other respiratory illnesses are still commonly spread in school.

In Australia, nine students and nine staff members from 15 schools were subjects in a contact tracing study. The results show COVID-19 exposure among a total of 735 students and 128 staff across the campuses. Yet only two secondary infections were reported, and one of those was from an adult to a child.

“The data are striking,” Dr. Raszka adds. “The key takeaway is that children are not driving the pandemic. After six months, we have a wealth of accumulating data showing that children are less likely to become infected and seem less infectious; it is congregating adults who aren’t following safety protocols who are responsible for driving the upward curve.”

Safely opening schools in COVID-19 pandemic

The Vermont team says social distancing and face coverings are much more effective at curbing disease transmission than school closures. They note there’s no significant increase of COVID-19 in Western European countries and Japan where schools are open. That evidence backs up the study’s mathematical models. Taking all of this into account, the authors strongly advocate letting children return to class this fall.

“By doing so, we could minimize the potentially profound adverse social, developmental, and health costs that our children will continue to suffer until an effective treatment or vaccine can be developed and distributed, or failing that, until we reach herd immunity,” the authors write.

The findings are published in the journal Pediatrics.

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