The expansion of vaccine availability and confirmations of their efficacy has dominated recent COVID-19 news, but it’s not all flowers and sunshine. For one, new variants of COVID-19 have been popping up around the world, and they’re presenting new challenges to public health officials.
“Right here in Minnesota, we’re now seeing the other aspect of this B.1.1.7 variant that hasn’t been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infection Disease Research and Policy, said on Meet the Press.
“Anywhere you look where you see this [strain] emerging, you see that kids are playing a huge role in the transmission,” he continued, pointing out that kids in middle and elementary school were not major spreaders of COVID-19 before variants started to emerge.
What does the rise of new variants easily spread by kids mean? Here’s what parents need to know.
It Complicates School Reopening
Thus far, school reopening plans have been premised on students who are at a much lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. The calculus changes completely if those young people are more likely to be vectors for the virus.
Let’s return to Minnesota for a moment. According to the CDC, 1,573 cases of COVID-19 in the state have been caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, third-most in the country. It’s also a huge proportion, about half of the total current cases in the state, which makes Minnesota something of an early example of what a pandemic dominated by these variants might look like.
And it’s not particularly inspiring for parents who have been waiting anxiously for all schools to fully reopen.
“Unlike the previous strains of the virus, we didn’t see children under eighth grade get infected often or they were not frequently very ill. They didn’t transmit to the rest of the community,” Osterholm continued on Meet the Press. “That was why I was one of those people very strongly supporting in-person learning. B.1.1.7 turns that on its head.”
In Minnesota, 752 schools (nearly 30 percent of all the schools in the state) have reported at least one case of COVID-19. Under current plans, the largest districts in the state in Minneapolis and St. Paul are scheduled to reopen to more students this month, and it would be surprising if that number didn’t rise when they do.
It Threatens Youth Sports
Of course, schools aren’t the only place where kids can congregate and potentially spread the more contagious variants of COVID-19.
“We’re finding out that it’s the team sports where kids are getting together, obviously many without masks, that are driving it, rather than in the classroom spread,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said last Tuesday on Good Morning America. “When you go back and take a look and try and track where these clusters of cases are coming from in the school, it’s just that.”
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky agreed that after-school activities like youth sports were creating clusters of disease spread and linked it directly to the relatively new variants.
“We know that these increases are due, in part, to more highly transmissible variants, which we are very closely monitoring,” she said in a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing.
It’s not hard to find examples. After a high school wrestling tournament was held in January in Florida, 38 people tested positive for the virus. One adult died.
And in one county in Minnesota, 68 cases of COVID-19 were linked to youth sports. That so many are B.1.1.7 variant cases was part of the rationale behind a call to shut down youth sports for two weeks last month.
It Makes Getting Kids Vaccinated All the More Urgent
Of course, vaccinating kids to protect them against COVID-19 is the best way to protect them and return to something resembling normalcy. On that front, there is good and bad news.
Pfizer and Moderna have both been testing their COVID-19 vaccines on kids as young as 12, and trials began last month in kids aged six months to 11 years. Johnson & Johnson also has plans to extend clinical trials to young children and adolescents. Pfizer just asked for emergency authorization to use the vaccine in kids 12 and up.
The bad news is that we don’t yet know when those vaccines will be approved for use in children — 12 year olds, say, could get vaccinated before the school year starts, but that leaves out a ton of grade-school age kids. More practically, we don’t know when states will make young people eligible to receive them once the vaccines are approved. Until that happens, the rise of COVID-19 variants could complicate American families’ return to something approaching a normal life.