Fact check: What role do kids play in spreading the coronavirus?

In the debate over whether schools across the US should open in the fall, questions continue to be raised about how the coronavirus affects children.

Proponents of reopening schools have argued that children have largely been spared the worst effects of the virus and have pointed to guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in late June that advocated for “all policy considerations for the coming school year [start] with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

When Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn was asked about reopening schools in Texas, one of the hotspots of the recent surge in cases — he told a local NBC affiliate Thursday that “we still don’t know whether children can get it and transmit it to others.”

While some articles and blogs have ridiculed Cornyn for supposedly suggesting that kids couldn’t be infected by the virus, Cornyn’s communication director Drew Brandewie told CNN the senator “was questioning the degree to which children can catch it and THEN transmit it to others. He was not questioning whether children can catch it at all.”

Brandewie also said that Cornyn was referring to a tweet from the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Scott Gottlieb, who wrote on Thursday that the “data clearly shows [children are] less likely to become infected and less likely to transmit infection.”

“But IMHO,” Gottlieb continued “we need to have humility on this question and recognize we don’t fully understand all the risks; and while kids are less vulnerable, less risk doesn’t mean no risk.”

Facts First: Cornyn’s statement is largely correct. Kids can certainly be infected by the virus but are less likely to develop severe symptoms than adults. What’s less clear however is the role children play in spreading the virus.

Infections

In an article for pediatric health care providers published in late May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that 2% of confirmed coronavirus cases in the US were among people 18 years old or younger.

“Relatively few children with COVID-19 are hospitalized, and fewer children than adults experience fever, cough, or shortness of breath,” the CDC says, noting that “severe outcomes have been reported in children including COVID-19 associated deaths” and those hospitalized were most commonly infants and children with underlying conditions.

A study published on June 16 in the Nature Medicine journal estimated that people under the age of 20 were approximately half as susceptible to the coronavirus compared to those older than 20.

During a Coronavirus Task Force briefing on Wednesday, CDC Director Robert Redfield said that children who are infected by the virus are unlikely to face significant illness.

“Clearly the ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very very, very limited,” Redfield said.

“We know of the post-immune inflammatory disease … but it is very rare,” he said, adding that “in general, this virus does not cause significant illness in children.”

Redfield also noted that, unlike influenza, “we really don’t have evidence that children are driving the transmission cycle” of the coronavirus.

In the interview Cornyn, addressing whether schools in Texas should reopen, said “the most important thing is safety.”

“The schools can open, but if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children back then they won’t go,” he said. “So, I think we’ve got a long way to go to regain their confidence.”

Transmission

In congressional testimony on June 30, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, addressed questions around children and the coronavirus. “We don’t really know, exactly, what the efficiency of spread is” among children. The NIH, Fauci mentioned, is currently studying 2,000 families to understand the rate of infection for children and “how often they infect their families.”

During the testimony, Redfield also mentioned that the CDC is currently studying households to understand what role children play in passing the virus on. “We don’t know the impact that children have yet on the transmission cycle,” Redfield said.

Some studies suggest that children could play a more significant role in spreading the virus than some think but remain inconclusive.

The CDC recommends that children socially distance at six feet apart from people they don’t live with and that children 2-years-old and above wear masks in public when socially distancing is difficult.