22 February 2021, Bavaria, Munich: Children walk down a hallway of their school with their satchels....
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Kids May Play “Huge Role” In Spreading New COVID Variant, Doctors Warn

Kids can "readily" become infected with and spread the B.1.1.7 COVID variant, experts say.

by Morgan Brinlee

Although young children have generally been less likely to catch and transmit COVID-19, health experts have now warned that a new COVID variant is being “readily” spread by children. This new variant is also reported to be more contagious and potentially more deadly than earlier strains of the coronavirus.

This B.1.1.7 variant is a brand new ballgame,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infection Disease Research and Policy and a former member of then-President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board, told NBC’s Meet the Press. “In fact, right here in Minnesota, we’re now seeing the other aspect of this B.1.1.7 variant that hasn’t been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily.”

Following a number of school districts’ decision to return to in-person instruction, 752 schools in Minnesota reported having confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) reported. At least half of the state’s COVID-19 cases are estimated to have stemmed from the B.1.1.7 variant, a highly contagious strain first identified in the United Kingdom.

But Minnesota is far from being the only state to report cases of the B.1.1.7 COVID variant. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that every state has reported finding at least one case of COVID-19 caused by the B.1.1.7 variant for a nationwide total of more than 15,500 cases as of Monday. In fact, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky announced Wednesday the B.1.1.7 variant had become the most common coronavirus strain in the United States.

“Based on our most recent estimates from CDC surveillance, the B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States,” CNN reported Walensky said at a White House briefing.

While early research on COVID-19 and kids suggested children were less likely to contract, transmit, or experience severe illness from the virus, the current surge in the B.1.1.7 COVID variant could prove especially troubling for children, Osterholm warned.

“Unlike the previous strains of the virus [where] we didn’t see children under eighth grade get infected often, or they were not frequently very ill [and] they didn’t transmit to the rest of the community,” Osterholm told Meet the Press. “B.1.1.7 turns that on its head... Anywhere you look where you see this [strain] emerging, you see that kids are playing a huge role in the transmission."

Osterholm isn’t the only public health expert warning parents that children may transmit this new strain of COVID more readily. Dr. Lewis Nelson, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and University Hospital’s emergency room chief of service, has warned children could carry the virus variant home from school and spread it to other family members.

"There are signals that children may spread the U.K. variant of COVID more readily than they spread the initial strain," Nelson told Yahoo! Life. "This would mean that, without proper precautions, they may bring the variant strain home or spread it to others in other venues. This is a particular concern to many given the return to the classroom along with the reduction is social distancing under the right circumstances recommended by the CDC. The disease in children still appears to be mild, but it is not without a small risk of severe effects."

In speaking to Meet the Press, Osterholm stressed the B.1.1.7 COVID variant was “almost like having a whole new pandemic descend on us,” noting it was “50% to 100% more infectious” than earlier strains and “causes more severe illness 50% to 60% of the time.”

“The only good news is our vaccines do work against it,” he continued.

That’s good news for adults and teens age 16 and up — all of whom have been authorized to receive COVID vaccines — but not for children, who remain ineligible for any of the vaccines. While clinical trials currently underway at Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson to test the safety and efficiency of their COVID vaccines in children could ultimately prove vital in helping to protect children from this dangerous new COVID variant, it’s unclear when children might be able to actually receive vaccines.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.