This opinion column was submitted by Rex Briggs, who is the Ad Council’s COVID-19 data science consultant and advisor to the Brown University School of Public Health.
As a data scientist and father of twins in the 0-19 cohort, I wanted to take a closer look at the data and consider the implications. Children rarely die from COVID-19, but they can bring COVID-19 home and they can infect others. To date, more than 47,000 children in the United States have lost one or both parents to COVID-19, according to JAMA Pediatrics.
Let that data point sink in for a moment. As of August 1, the best count of the number of children who have lost a parent to COVID is 47,808.
Although young people rarely die from COVID, they can be a reservoir for infections and can pass it on to others who are at greater risk of hospitalization and death. Perhaps the greatest risk to a child’s well-being is infecting and losing a parent to COVID. Although the risk of death from COVID for a child is low, it is not zero. Children can die, require hospitalization, or suffer long-term damage from COVID-19. It is not known whether the delta variant increases these negative outcomes for children. Some recent data suggests so.
At the same time, school in person is of great value both for the child and for working parents. Polls show that the majority of parents want face-to-face school for a variety of reasons. How to navigate this complex decision?
As a researcher predicting trends in COVID-19, I wanted to understand the dynamics of COVID-19 in youth and the implications for families. The analysis began with the COVID demographics of cdc.gov.
Because those under 12 are not yet eligible for vaccination, they represent a larger share of total infections. The rate increases in April, from less than 15% of total cases to over 30% in May. This means that at this point, almost one in three confirmed infections was a child. Since children 0-19 make up 25% of the total US population, this means this age group is a bit more likely to get infected while school is in progress. But then, at the end of May, the rate fell again, to about 15%.
One explanation for this trend is that face-to-face schooling is increasing the rate of infections among our young people. When school sessions ended for the summer vacation, infection rates declined as a result. Another explanation is that there are far fewer tests for young people when school is not in session. It’s probably a bit of both. From a forecast standpoint, I expect the in-person school this fall to increase infections and breakthrough cases.
How do you make the school in person work, in light of this data?
Extending vaccination to children under 12 could be useful. While people who are vaccinated can become infected and pass it on to others, the data show vaccinated people are less likely to be infected and, if they are, are contagious for a shorter period of time and potentially with a lower viral load.
Another approach is to have that many people around the children either fully vaccinated or with confirmed immunity from a previous infection.
Another approach is that of masks at school. When I was traveling with Tokyo, it was quite common to see elementary school kids with masks during flu season. It could become a common sight in the United States this year.
Another option is home schooling, hybrid or some other setting that allows the child to learn and the family to be protected.
Here in Reno, Sage Ridge, I was impressed that the school was running vaccination campaigns on campus and almost the entire senior class was fully vaccinated by the end of the school year. It allowed my boys to reconnect with their friends and have graduation events that are so much better in person than on zoom. I am grateful for the leadership of parents, from the brother of the former chief of staff to the President of the United States on the right to political organizers on the left – the school and the community have come together to provide our children with the environment the best and safest we could. I hope you will experience the kindness and care that I have seen from this class of parents, children and the school administration.
My models show that the combination of increased vaccinations and a natural recovery could bring us to a level of herd immunity early next year, so maybe the second half of the school year could. be without a mask. But it depends on us.
There is an easy way and a difficult way to boost herd immunity. The most difficult and risky way is to spread COVID from person to person. The risk is that an unvaccinated person will be hospitalized or die and a child will lose a parent. The risk is that the virus will turn into something worse, which is a possibility every time it spreads from person to person. Vaccinations carry a much lower risk. The risk is not zero, but, for young people, by my calculations, it is about 1 / 100th of the risk taken with COVID. If in doubt, talk to your doctor or visit the Ad Council’s getvaccineanswers.org.
Hope the data and links to the studies are useful to you as you consider your best options and chat with your family, fellow parents and school administration.
Rex Briggs lives in Reno and is a COVID-19 data science consultant for Ad Council and an advisor at Brown University School of Public Health.