New research points to the virus’s ability to nest in the bodies of asymptomatic children like an invisible bomb, capable of silently exploding in homes
In the United States, as in the rest of the world, one of the greatest challenges posed by the pandemic is going back to schools in the coming days. A perspective that has the authorities and the associations of parents and teachers on the defensive and that has been further clouded by the results of several studies. A recent investigation proves that minors can get sick in greater proportion and another they can be more contagious than previously thought.
A study carried out by researchers from two Massachusetts hospitals shows that, although children are less likely to become infected or fall ill, the viral load they carry in their airways is usually greater than adults with COVID-19, even those admitted to intensive care units. “I was surprised by the high levels of virus that we found in children of all ages, especially in the early days of infection,” said Lael Yonker, the scientist responsible for the study, published in ‘The Journal of Pediatrics‘.
According to the report, which analyzed the cases of 192 people between zero to 22 years old, 49 of whom had tested positive for covid-19 and twenty were in the latter stages of the disease, the higher viral load of children makes them more infectious. “You think of a hospital, and all the precautions that are taken to treat very sick adults, but the viral load of these hospitalized patients is significantly lower than in a ‘healthy child’ walking around with a high viral load of SARS-CoV-2,” Yonker said.
How and when to open schools
The findings directly affect the most urgent debate of these days: how, when and with what measures can schools be opened, in a way that does not put the health of school personnel, students and their families at risk. “If schools are fully open without the necessary precautions,” the report says, “children are likely to play a bigger role in this pandemic.”
The authors advise applying strict hygiene and social distancing measures, as well as the widespread use of masks. Many school systems around the country, like New York’s, plan to combine face-to-face classes with distance classes and have promised to improve ventilation and add health personnel to the centers.
These conclusions are just one more notch in the fight against time to understand the coronavirus, which every week for months, thanks to the efforts of the medical and scientific communities around the world, reveals a new aspect. In this case, the ability to nest in the bodies of asymptomatic children like an invisible bomb, capable of silently exploding in homes.
Although not all minors, as was speculated a few months ago, are asymptomatic, as reflected in another study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the last two weeks of July alone, 97,000 cases of children with COVID-19 were detected – a 40% increase in infections detected in children. A total of 25 children died in all that month.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also warned about the higher incidence of cases among infants: both in total numbers and in proportion to the total number of infected and hospitalizations. Once admitted, the minor has the same chances as the adult of ending up in an intensive care unit: one in three, according to the CDC. Minors, who represent 22% of the US population, account for 7% of the total cases of covid-19, which exceed 5.3 million throughout the country.
A notable factor, the researchers say, is the relaxation of restrictive measures. Many children have spent months confined to going out to practice typical summer activities, with greater or less security. At a Georgia camp, for example, 260 out of 344 campers tested positive for COVID-19.
Some schools that have been running for weeks, such as Georgia itself, have suffered complications. In the first five days of school, in Cherokee County alone, nearly 500 people had to self-quarantine for being in close proximity to covid cases. Soon after, almost 1,200. A third of the schools in this educational district, which numbers 30,000 students, have been affected.
Images of crowded lobbies, as in the case of the North Paulding Institute, have been followed by headlines of contagions and emergency measures. This center had to cancel classes and move all teaching to cyberspace. In Illinois, covid tracking teams have been busy with an informal prom that caused five confirmed cases.
The CDC, in light of what these dangers are, has just renewed its recommendations to reopen schools. Scientists ask schools to continually monitor local data on infections and have emergency measures in place, including the closure of the center. In addition to the already classic hygiene protocols, such as the distance of two meters, washing hands, wearing a mask or disinfecting the facilities often, they recommend dividing students and teachers into groups that remain the same throughout the school period. It would be the same, too, to cancel study trips and avoid self-service in the dining room, which should also use recyclable trays and cutlery.
These twists and turns do not go unnoticed by parents and teachers’ associations. In the largest school district in the United States, New York City, educators unions threaten to go on strike if authorities do not tighten security measures, which many of them consider insufficient.
Union demands repairing buildings to improve ventilation, ensure protective equipment and increase regular COVID testing
“We don’t think it’s possible for schools to open on September 10,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s largest education union with 75,000 members. The union is demanding that buildings be repaired to improve ventilation, ensure protective equipment and increase regular COVID testing of both students and staff. If not, he said that we could see “one of the greatest debacles in the history of the city.”
The opening or non-opening of schools is also closely related to the routine of households and to the overall performance of the economy. For this reason, according to Barron’s analysis, keeping schools closed can cost US GDP about $700 billion.
The health and near future of 56 million students depend on this complex network of priorities, in which the White House is committed to going back to school and has threatened the states with freezing federal contributions if they keep classrooms closed.