What’s the Deal With Kids and the Coronavirus: Five Leading Theories

As politicians debate whether schools should reopen, scientists consider whether kids’ protection is biological or behavioral

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
10 min readAug 3, 2020

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Photo: Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

One of the biggest enigmas since the beginning of the pandemic has been how kids respond to the novel coronavirus. Children, particularly those under the age of 10, don’t appear to be as vulnerable to the virus as adults are, and scientists and pediatricians aren’t sure why. For one thing, this observation conflicts with the fact that children are typically more susceptible to respiratory infections. “In my field, almost everything infects kids more than it does adults,” says Alfin Vicencio, MD, chief of the division of pediatric pulmonology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “This is an unusual situation.”

Early data from Europe and Asia provided hope that children were nearly immune to the virus. In Iceland, zero out of 848 randomly selected children under the age of 10 tested positive for the coronavirus, and children who were tested because of suspected exposure to the virus were half as likely to be positive as adults were. An early study from China reported similar numbers, with only 1% of all Covid-19 cases occurring in children under the age of 10, and another 1% of cases in kids aged 10 to 19. Recent statistical models based on global Covid-19 data back up these optimistic observations, proposing that children are half as susceptible to being infected with the virus as adults are.

“Kids are not superheroes; they’re not covered in a weird plastic antivirus shell. But also to say they’re exactly as infectious as adults when we know that they are less likely to be symptomatic also seems wrong.”

In the United States, encouraging anecdotal news stories in June reported that there had been virtually no cases in YMCA day camps and daycare centers that had remained open since the beginning of the pandemic, despite caring for 40,000 children. But come July the narrative changed, with a fivefold increase in cases in kids under the age of 10 in Oregon, multiple outbreaks in…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental