The number of kids contracting the coronavirus is rising. In the week that ended with July 29, more than 70,000 children got COVID-19, representing nearly a fifth of all cases. Though a vanishingly small number of kids have died of the disease—358 since the start of the pandemic, as of July 29—some states, like Florida, now have dozens of children hospitalized. Few parents want to hear that their little ones may get COVID-19, no matter how low their odds of death.
The problem, of course, is that kids under 12 can’t be vaccinated yet. Until they can be, the best way to protect them is simple: Vaccinate all the eligible adults and teens around them. “The single most important thing parents can do is to get vaccinated and to vaccinate all their kids who are 12 and older,” Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiologist and pediatric infectious-disease professor at Stanford Medical School, told me.
Kids spend the majority of their time around adults, and existing contact-tracing data suggest that adults are the ones getting kids sick. “There is with Delta, we think, a reasonably high household attack rate, meaning that one person in the household gets sick and other people are at risk of getting sick,” says Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
COVID-19 outbreaks are larger in under-vaccinated areas, so it stands to reason that kids in those areas would come into contact with more COVID-infected adults. That’s exactly what the numbers show: COVID-19 rates among kids appear to be rising in states where fewer adults are vaccinated. Among the states with the largest recent increases in child COVID-19 cases, according to the most recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, are Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, and Florida—states where relatively few adults are vaccinated.
Conversely, vaccinating more adults and older children seems to decrease the number of COVID-19 cases among younger kids. In Israel, COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated kids plummeted after adults got vaccinated in large numbers earlier this year—even though schools reopened in March. One study, also out of Israel, found that every 20-point increase in adult vaccination rates in a community halved the number of kids testing positive for COVID-19. “Every time somebody gets vaccinated, everybody around them becomes a little more protected,” Jha says.
Some have worried, because of a CDC slideshow reported on by The Washington Post a few weeks ago, that vaccinated adults pose as much of a risk to the unvaccinated, including children, as unvaccinated adults do. But this is not the case, Jha and others say. Vaccinated people are less likely to get infected. If you don’t get infected, you can’t spread COVID-19 to others. Although initially, infected vaccinated and unvaccinated people may be similarly contagious for a short period, vaccinated people clear the virus more quickly, making them less contagious overall. And among vaccinated people, “we haven’t seen studies that show asymptomatic transmission, even with the Delta variant, to others, although symptomatic transmission is clearly occurring,” says Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco.
For parents living in states or cities with low vaccination rates, experts recommend masking children under 12 indoors, including in schools. And if you’re a vaccinated but symptomatic adult, it might be a good idea to mask at home too.
But really, the solution to parents’ worries about their children is universal vaccination, which creates rings of protection around kids. School starts in a few weeks. Young kids need adults and teens to get their shots.