Keen to send the nation’s kids back to reopened schools, President Trump has called children “virtually immune,” “essentially immune” and “almost immune” to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
But a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscores how wrong those assertions are.
Children can catch, suffer and die from the coronavirus, according to the report released Monday. Between March 1 and Sept. 19, at least 277,285 schoolchildren in 38 states tested positive for the virus.
And 51 of them — including 20 children between ages 5 and 11 — died of COVID-19. In all, 3,189 children between 5 and 17 were hospitalized.
School-aged children with asthma and other chronic lung diseases accounted for roughly 55% of those who tested positive, and almost 10% had some kind of disability.
As with adults, Latino children far outpaced their share of the population in testing positive, accounting for 46% of those who tested positive during the 6½-month period studied by the CDC.
And although Trump has said he does not believe school-aged children get sick from the virus, at least 58% of those who tested positive — and possibly more than 9 in 10 — had symptoms at the time they were tested, the CDC reported.
The new research, released Monday as a CDC “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” is one of the public health agency’s first efforts to count and characterize coronavirus infections in the nation’s school-aged population. As a new school year resumes and some schools reopen to students, the new accounting will provide a “critical” baseline that will let public health officials discern trends in infections among school-aged children.
Dr. William Hanage, a Harvard public health expert, said it’s no surprise that older schoolchildren, who are more independent and less likely to maintain social distance, would have higher rates of positivity to infection. At the same time, he added, the report “almost certainly underestimates cases in the younger age group.”
When and where schools reopen and children return to classrooms, opportunities for transmission will escalate. And this report “underlines that kids do transmit,” said Hanage. The result — a rise in cases among young learners — is predictable, he suggested.
Already, a few of those trends were clear. Others will require further data and closer dissection.
Between March and mid-September, infection rates among children 12 to 17 were consistently twice as high as those of children 5 to 11 years old. Compared with middle- and high-schoolers (those 12-17), the younger kids (aged 5-11) were slightly less likely to have recorded the presence of symptoms at the time they were tested (56.1% vs. 59.6%). But in 37% of all cases cited, symptom status was “missing or unknown.”
The summer months brought spikes in infections among school-aged children, especially among adolescents, the CDC found. But as classes have resumed across the nation — some remotely, some in person — a summer-long run-up in positive coronavirus tests may have begun to reverse itself.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, coronavirus positive rates among schoolchildren went on a wild roller-coaster ride, rising from roughly 20 cases per 100,000 school-aged children to a peak of 38 cases per 100,000 in mid-July before returning in early September to 20 cases per 100,000.
Whether that downturn will sustain itself into the new school year, however, is in some doubt. As September turned, the downward trend of positive infections among schoolkids began to reverse itself.
Dr. William Schaffner, public health professor at Vanderbilt University, said that despite the unresolved details, the thrust of the report is clear: Children are not invulnerable.
“This stands in stark contrast to what we’ve heard time and time again from politicians: that this disease does not affect children. Really? Here, we see there are at least 51 families who will be grieving for a very long time.”
More than 3,000 other children have been hospitalized, he added, “putting their families in agony.”