Conflicting Data: Can Kids Transmit Coronavirus to Adults?

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Posted: May 12, 2020 10:15 AM
Conflicting Data: Can Kids Transmit Coronavirus to Adults?

Source: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

First, go back and read this post about COVID deaths in the state of Massachusetts. Citing data from late April, I wrote, "pointing out that this virus very disproportionately impacts older demographics is not a dismissal of that profoundly real concern. But it seems quite noteworthy that as of Sunday, the coronavirus had killed zero school-aged people in all of Massachusetts and just 31 people under the age of 50. Total. Out of close to 3,000 deaths in the state. It would seem as though K-12 schools and universities might be among the safest institutions to target for accelerated reopening." Here's the latest batch of the state's statistics, released over the weekend:


For reference, here are the coronavirus death rates broken down by age group in New York City, the national epicenter of the virus:

In my post last month, I wrote that simply reopening schools across the board is affected by complicating factors, "like faculty members in more vulnerable groups, and students who'd go home to multi-generational households." On that issue, there is some evidence that children do not transmit COVID-19 to adults, which would be a huge breakthrough if confirmed. Here's the finding of one analysis of cases in Iceland:

Children under 10 are less likely to get infected than adults and if they get infected, they are less likely to get seriously ill. What is interesting is that even if children do get infected, they are less likely to transmit the disease to others than adults. We have not found a single instance of a child infecting parents.

And this is what the government of Switzerland determined:

Switzerland is one of several European countries beginning to ease their lockdown measures...Dr Koch told a news conference this week that the original advice to keep distance between children and their grandparents was made when less was known about how the coronavirus was transmitted. "Young children are not infected and do not transmit the virus," he said. "They just don't have the receptors to catch the disease."...Dr Koch said that many grandparents "live to see their grandchildren" and that it was important for their mental health. He said it was not the children who posed a risk to elderly relatives but their parents...The new advice applies to young children who show no signs of illness while older children must still avoid contact with grandparents.

But wait, this science is definitely not settled on this question:

Fewer children seem to get infected by the coronavirus than adults, and most of those who do have mild symptoms, if any. But do they pass the virus on to adults and continue the chain of transmission? The answer is key to deciding whether and when to reopen schools...two new studies offer compelling evidence that children can transmit the virus. Neither proved it, but the evidence was strong enough to suggest that schools should be kept closed for now, many epidemiologists who were not involved in the research said...Many other countries, including Israel, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have all either reopened schools or are considering doing so in the next few weeks...“Are any of these studies definitive? The answer is ‘No, of course not,’” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University who was not involved in either study. But, he said, “to open schools because of some uninvestigated notion that children aren’t really involved in this, that would be a very foolish thing.”

The US school year is nearly over anyway; American officials must closely monitor the examples of other countries reopening their schools very closely. If the resulting proliferation of contacts among children lead to an explosion of new cases and deaths, with kids bringing the disease home with them, that will be an important cautionary tale. If worst fears aren't realized, that should help pave the way for a quasi-normal reopening of schools in the fall -- or at least help inform the process we adopt here. And there's also this mysterious COVID-linked illness that has claimed the lives of a small number of children that needs to be monitored (update: this topic arose during today's Senate hearing).  As we puzzle through these complex dilemmas, I have very little patience for people who insist that we stampede to reopening society without taking needed precautions, but I'm also sick of this attitude:


It is not "pro death," or whatever, to think about how we should carefully ease back into non-lockdown life. Weighing risks and consequences isn't ghoulish; it's necessary. As I referenced in the tweet above, economic devastation isn't merely an unfortunate byproduct of mandatory shutdowns. It's inflicting real, acute, and perhaps lasting plan on people's lives. And it's literally costing lives, too:

COVID-19 has directly claimed tens of thousands of U.S. lives, but conditions stemming from the novel coronavirus — rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future — could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, new research suggests. Deaths from these causes are known as "deaths of despair." And the COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating conditions that lead to such deaths. "Deaths of despair are tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread, and isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were already an unprecedented number of deaths of despair. We wanted to estimate how this pandemic would change that number moving forward," said one of the study's authors, Benjamin Miller.

For those people assailing anyone who wants any form of reopening as cruel and lethal (this performative opprobrium is often assigned along partisan and ideological lines, which is telling), do they care one whit about these 'deaths of despair' exacerbated by ongoing lockdowns? Or are those shrugworthy? Anyone trying to tell you that there's an easy and obviously correct way to balance all of these factors is lying to you. These decisions are very, very hard, especially when we still have huge gaps in our knowledge about the virus. And this is also a true statement about the reactionary cynicism being demonstrated in some quarters:


I'll leave you with some hopeful news:


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