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Can Children Spread COVID-19? A New Study Suggests "It Is A "Possibility"

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As parents and health officials continue to weigh the risks of returning to school this fall, a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics has added a new element to an already complicated conversation. Researchers at Ann & Robert H. Laurie Children's Hospital in Chicago looked into whether children can spread COVID-19 as easily as adults and their findings suggest it's possible.

For their study, researchers analyzed 145 cases of mild to moderate COVID-19 illness within the first week patients displayed symptoms of the virus between March and April. They compared the viral load — or the measure of virus particles — of children younger than 5 years old, children between the ages of 5 and 17, and adults between the ages of 18 to 65 years old.

Researchers ultimately found that children under 5 with COVID-19 had a higher viral load than older children and adults, suggesting a greater risk of transmission. The study also found that these same children had high levels of the virus in their noses compared to older children and adults. Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, the study's lead author, told The New York Times this study "definitely shows that kids do have high levels of the virus similar to and maybe even higher than adults."

Researchers concluded in their study that young children could have the potential to spread COVID-19 to the general public as much as older kids and adults do, which is particularly concerning as the school year approaches due to the "behavioral habits of young children and close quarters in school and day care settings."

"This has important public health implications, especially during discussions on the safety of reopening schools and daycare," Heald-Sargent said in a news release for the study.

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This new study, albeit small, is undoubtably significant as previous research has suggested kids may not be as affected as adults by COVID-19 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that "children are unlikely to be major drivers of the spread of the virus."

When it comes to returning to school this year, Heald-Sargent told The New York Times there are "many nuances beyond just the scientific one" to consider, but "one takeaway from [this new study] is that we can't assume that just because kids aren't getting sick, or very sick, that they don't have the virus."

Earlier this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, told ABC News' Chief Medical Correspondent Jen Ashton during an Instagram Live stream that schools should "try as best as possible" to reopen. "I don't think there's going to be a one-size-fits-all here," Fauci said. "There are going to be parts of the country where there is so little viral activity that you don't have to do anything different... There are other parts of the country where there is enough viral activity where you want to see some modifications."

In its updated guidance released last week, the CDC stressed the "importance of reopening schools this fall," citing data that has suggested "children are not the primary drivers of COVID-19 spread in schools or in the community" and evidence that indicates children are "far less likely to suffer severe symptoms."

Research about COVID-19 a new virus, is still evolving every day, so advice and guidance is likely to change in the coming months as public health officials continue to learn more and researchers behind this new study hope their findings are "taken into account."

"Our study was not designed to prove that younger children spread COVID-19 as much as adults, but it is a possibility," Heald-Sargent said in a news release for the study. "We need to take that into account in efforts to reduce transmission as we continue to learn more about this virus."

Studies Cited:

Taylor Heald-Sargent, M. (2020, July 30). Age-Related Differences in Nasopharyngeal SARS-CoV-2 Levels in Patients With Mild to Moderate COVID-19. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2768952

Riccardo Castagnoli, M. (2020, April 22). SARS-CoV-2 Infection in Children and Adolescents. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2765169

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.