Young kids are extremely unlikely to suffer serious complications from COVID-19. It’s weird. Nobody entirely understands why. But you know what? I’m sold. It’s been a tough year — let’s take our wins where we can. Particularly when, as several news outlets have reported in recent weeks, this is good news for a lot of parents during a probably long stretch when they will be vaccinated but their children will not.
Before I started making plans for my post-vaccine parenting lifestyle, though, I wanted to understand one other aspect of risk: the role my unvaccinated kids might play in getting other people sick. In the U.S., only about 31.6 percent of eligible people were fully vaccinated as of Monday morning, and that number varies a lot from place to place — 23.8 percent of Alabamians were fully vaccinated compared with 40.2 percent of Mainers, and you can assume counties and cities show this same kind of variation. That leaves a lot of people who can still contract COVID-19, and I wondered whether young kids could end up being a conduit that keeps COVID-19 moving through the population even as vaccination rates rise.
As with many aspects of COVID-19, this question doesn’t yet have absolute, unequivocal answers. When I asked Yair Goldberg, a professor at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology who is studying how COVID-19 spreads in that country, he said that his team wasn’t yet ready to talk about the data they’re collecting. Even a year in, we’re still learning as we go.
But other researchers told me that evidence suggests grade-school kids are not a major driver of COVID-19’s spread in communities — at least, that is, so long as they’re following mitigation strategies like wearing a mask.
For example, even after many school districts had been open for a while last fall and case numbers were rising to a surge, a study modeling the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. found that children age 9 and under were responsible for only about 5 percent of the transmissions happening at the time. And those results line up with what researchers are seeing in other countries. Kids in the U.K. can and do get infected and spread COVID-19, said Rosalind Eggo, a professor and infectious disease modeler at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. But so far, she said, cases among kids aren’t rising before cases in adults, a sign that would indicate they were the ones driving infection.
The fact that kids don’t seem to be a leading source of COVID-19 transmission is a bright spot in this whole sad, sorry year. It could quite easily be a different situation. Influenza, after all, works exactly the opposite way, said Oliver Ratmann, a lecturer in statistics at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the U.S. modeling study. With the flu, he told me, kids are both more susceptible to the virus and more likely to transmit it. What’s more, he said, they tend to have a higher number of contacts than adults, thanks to spending their days in school or day care.
If COVID-19 spread like the flu, a community where none of the children and the majority of adults were not yet fully vaccinated would be in trouble. Unvaccinated, unmasked kids playing outside together, going to restaurants or movie theaters with their vaccinated parents and traveling on vacation to other communities would pose a meaningful risk to a lot of people besides themselves.
So, it is a pretty big relief that this is not the case, and we’re seeing that fact echoed in new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that classify unvaccinated people (including kids) hanging out unmasked, outside in the safest category — so long as the people they’re with are all vaccinated. That said, risks remain. Young children do transmit the virus, and variants like the more-transmissible B.1.1.7 lineage increase how likely kids are to spread COVID-19. It’s also important to note that those low rates of children transmitting COVID-19 are very dependent on behavioral modifications — in particular, wearing masks indoors. A brand-new study out on Thursday found that risk-reduction strategies like teachers wearing masks, kids wearing masks, checking symptoms daily and canceling extracurricular activities like sports made the difference between in-person schooling that spread COVID-19 from kids through their families and in-person schooling that didn’t significantly increase the spread of COVID-19.
All this means that vaccinated parents should not go around treating their unvaccinated children as extensions of themselves, said Dr. William Raszka, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center. There will be situations where two vaccinated adults can safely hang out mask-free but their unvaccinated kids can’t.
It’s also the case that the more adults get vaccinated, the more COVID-19 cases will concentrate in young children — simply because that’s increasingly the only place the virus has left to go. Researchers have seen that in the U.K. as well, said Edward Goldstein, a senior research scientist in epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Kids age 5-12 are now the group with the highest infection rate in the U.K.
Experts like Raszka say kids going unmasked outdoors — unless they’re in a large, closely packed group — is probably fine. But masking indoors remains an important way to keep COVID-19 from spreading among unvaccinated people of all ages. In the end, the degree to which your children’s lives can reasonably change has a lot to do with how tightly locked down your family has been up until this point. If your kids have been masked up everywhere, indoors and out, the fact that rising numbers of adults are vaccinated and experts are saying outdoors is safer than previously thought will look like a reprieve. If you’ve already lost the masks months ago, the good news might not seem so great.