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How To Make Sure Your Kid Isn’t A Superspreader

The drumbeat of the last five months has been: Get. Your. Shot! And, for the most part, the messaging is working: more than 40 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

But there’s one group who’s been left out: kids. Though the Pfizer vaccine may soon be approved for those older than 12, we don’t know when younger kids will get a vaccine. That could leave kids more vulnerable to COVID-19. 

But the problem is bigger than just whether the kids are all right. What about the people they could potentially spread COVID-19 to? 

On the latest episode of PODCAST-19, we explore that question. You can listen to the episode and read a lightly edited transcript below.

Helen Chu: You know, we don’t really have great data in kids because kids haven’t been tested for the longest time. 

Maggie Koerth: Dr. Helen Chu is an infectious disease doctor and associate professor at the University of Washington. She said, when it comes to kids and COVID …

Helen Chu: We know now that children do get infected with coronavirus. But they are much, much less likely to get sick enough to be hospitalized and much, much less likely to die. The data is starting to look like children are more likely to be asymptomatic than adults.


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Maggie Koerth: We know that asymptomatic adults are really good at transmitting COVIDthey can be those superspreaders we’ve heard about throughout this pandemic. But what about kids? 

William Raszka: They still can transmit it, there’s no doubt that, they’re just not as efficient. And no one really, completely understood that.

Maggie Koerth: Dr. William Raszka is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont. 

William Raszka: It could be that they can’t cough as much. They can’t expel it quite as far. It’s a little unclear. The preponderance of the data would say in household transmission, young children are not quite as good as adults.

A young girl gets her temperature read from a person wearing black medical gloves holding a thermometer gun.

related: Kids Can’t Get The COVID-19 Vaccine Yet. How Much Of A Risk Do They Pose To The Rest Of Society? Read more. »

Maggie Koerth While kids can transmit COVID, the research is showing that it’s much less likely. This is vastly different from what we see with influenza, where children really are the drivers of flu epidemics: they are more susceptible than adults and they also transmit that disease more easily. With COVID, however, one recent study showed that kids transmitted fewer infections than expected, given their share of the population

According to Dr. Chu, that means …

Helen Chu: In places where there is known to be community spread, the reopening of schools does not seem to be accelerating that — schools are not the site where people are getting new cases of coronavirus. 

Maggie Koerth: But that’s with mitigation strategies, such as masking, distancing, and even partial homeschooling. Still though …

Helen Chu: It’s really the rest of society: playdates, sports, wedding churches, those are the places where people are getting it, even the children. 

Maggie Koerth: But just because kids haven’t been getting super sick, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. 

Helen Chu: So what we know about the B.117 variant is that it is currently overtaking the United States. It is becoming the dominant variant that we are seeing in multiple states around the U.S. We also know that it is both more infectious and more severe.

Maggie Koerth: And that’s true in kids, as well.

Helen Chu: What I worry about are the children, because they’re the group where there is a more susceptible variant that can cause more severe disease, but there is no vaccine available for them. So as people are getting vaccinated, and they perceive that their lives can return back to normal, children are being impacted by that differentially.

Maggie Koerth: As long as kids can’t get vaccinated, their health and role in spreading the virus depends on what adults decide — both for ourselves and for what limits we set for the kids. So, what do you do if you’re vaccinated but your kids aren’t? According to Dr. Raszka, if kids are around unvaccinated people …

William Raszka: So any place that people are maskless indoors I think there is a risk for transmission. I think that masking in indoor environments, like a school is an amazing way to prevent infection.

Maggie Koerth: But outdoors, Dr. Raszka doesn’t think kids need masks as long as they’re not right on top of each other. 

William Raszka: Yeah, I just have a certain amount of faith that the risk is lower outside. Now, assuming the normal childhood things. They’re out there playing kickball, running around, tag, whatever, you know, kid stuff? Then I’m okay with it. It’s just I, I’m always more concerned indoors.

Maggie Koerth: And if you’re worried that your kids might get someone’s grandparent sick? Well, you’re not alone.

Am I crazy to worry about? My kid getting the grandparent of some other kid sick? Or am I crazy to not worry about that?

William Raszka: I never tell a parent, under any circumstances, that they’re crazy. They are trying to do the best they can for their children and their family. I think that, you know, extrapolating that your child is going to affect another child who’s going to infect a grandparent is a multi-step process. I think that if you know your child is ill, you should not send your child out to play with other children. That is a very reasonable strategy. But if you are immunized and your kids are healthy, the true risk in that household is pretty low that that child’s going to acquire infection and transmit it to somebody else. So, if you’re healthy, your kids are healthy, I’d let them play with other kids.

Maggie Koerth: That’s great news … though how excited it makes you probably depends on your pandemic lifestyle. If your kid has been masked up outdoors for the past year, maybe now you’ll let them play some mask-free kickball. But if you’ve already been more lax, you getting vaccinated doesn’t necessarily change a lot for your kid. Remember, kids are their own people. They have their own likes, dislikes, immune systems, and viral loads. They’re not simply extensions of ourselves.

Anna Rothschild: Thanks to Maggie Koerth for bringing us this story. That’s it for this episode of PODCAST-19. If you have a question you’d like us to answer on the show, email us a voice memo at askpodcast19@gmail.com. That’s “ask podcast one nine at gmail dot com.” This story was reported by Maggie Koerth with help from me, Anna Rothschild, and our producer, Sinduja Srinivasan. Chadwick Matlin is our executive producer. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


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Maggie Koerth is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Sinduja Srinivasan was the producer for PODCAST-19.

Anna Rothschild is FiveThirtyEight’s senior producer for video.

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