FACT CHECK: Are children less likely to transmit COVID-19 than adults?
UNCLEAR. While fewer children have been infected by COVID-19, it’s no longer clear how likely they are to spread COVID-19. At the moment, it appears that children under ten are less likely to spread COVID-19, but children aged ten and above may be just as likely as adults to spread the virus.
In May, we reported that children were less likely to transmit COVID-19 than adults based on the available evidence. Scientific research at the time, including studies of children in France and Australia, seemed to show that children experienced milder symptoms of COVID-19 and transmitted the virus less often than adults.
We now know that those early studies did not provide a full picture. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated their guidelines in August to note that children likely have the same or higher viral loads (the number of virus particles in a sample) as adults. The higher the viral load, the more likely you are to spread COVID-19 through droplets.
The CDC stated that children appear to “spread the virus effectively in households and camp settings,” and that transmission among children may have been slowed down not because they are intrinsically less likely to spread COVID-19, but because schools were closed in the spring and early summer.
There have since been large COVID-19 outbreaks at an overnight children’s camp in the state of Georgia and at a high school in Israel. A contact tracing study in South Korea found that children between ten and nineteen years old were highly likely to spread COVID-19 in their household, while children under ten spread it far less often.
In a guide written for schools, the Canadian government stated that transmission in children is not fully understood, noting that children over ten “may be as likely as adults to transmit the virus to others” and that those under ten, while less likely to spread the virus, still pose a risk.
Researchers at the RAND Corporation, a policy research organization, argued that because children are less likely to show symptoms of COVID-19, they are tested for the virus less often than they should be. “Although the data may make it appear that children are less likely to get infected, the truth may be that they are less likely to be diagnosed,” wrote health researchers Laura F. Garabedian and Rebecca Lee Haffajee. However, on a more hopeful note, they wrote that schools in Ireland and Australia were able to prevent COVID-19 from spreading by taking the right precautions.
Studies of children infected with COVID-19 show they are still less likely to have serious symptoms compared to adults and that deaths are extremely rare. On the other hand, they may be more likely to spread the virus among themselves and throughout their communities than was previously believed. As schools reopen this fall, preventative measures like mask-wearing, handwashing, proper ventilation, rapid testing, and physical distancing will be especially important to prevent outbreaks.
Photo via Pixabay.