Given that bars and restaurants in many parts of the United States are beginning to reopen, while the prospects for school remain hazy almost everywhere, you might think that scientific evidence about kids and the coronavirus is nonexistent. The truth is that we are still somewhat in the dark, but not completely. Here’s what we know, what we kind of know, and what we need to do to know more.
Back in February and March, when the pandemic was in its early stages, the big question was whether kids were at high risk for COVID-19. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they were; other respiratory diseases such as the flu are known to significantly affect both children and the elderly. But one of the robust findings about COVID-19 in the past few months is that children are among the least affected groups. They are less likely to contract the disease, and if they do contract it, they are more likely to have a mild or asymptomatic case. Death rates are much lower. This evidence doesn’t mean that kids cannot get sick, and or cannot fall seriously ill, but older adults are far more susceptible.
The other big question was: Are children major vectors for the virus? At least one government has argued that children could not transmit the virus at all. Some research teams countered that they were just as likely to transmit it as adults are. At this point, neither of these claims seems quite right. If a kid is sick and shedding virus particles and an adult is exposed to those particles, of course the adult can get sick; but children do seem to transmit the virus less than adults do. In an early case, an infected child went to several skiing schools and was exposed to hundreds of contacts without infecting anyone. Data from the Netherlands suggest that children are relatively unlikely to be the “index case” in their families—that is, they are unlikely to be the first case in a family cluster.