At Least 97,000 Children Tested Positive For Coronavirus In Last 2 Weeks Of July

Aug 11, 2020
Originally published on August 11, 2020 8:35 am

At least 97,000 children tested positive for the coronavirus during the last two weeks of July, according to a new review of state-level data by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association. The increase represents a 40% surge in the nation's cumulative total of child cases.

"I think it's showing that, yes, kids can get infected and can spread the infection," said Dr. Sean O'Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado and vice chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The report comes as schools across the country grapple with when and how to reopen safely — with those decisions becoming increasingly politicized. President Trump has attempted to pressure the nation's K-12 schools to reopen, threatening to withhold federal funds and falsely claiming in an interview last week on Fox & Friends that "children are almost, I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease."

This new report reiterates that children are not, in fact, immune to this disease.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 340,000 children have tested positive for the coronavirus, representing roughly 9% of U.S. cases to date. The rise in child cases, according to the report, was largely fueled by states in the South and West, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Montana and Alaska.

The report comes with a few important caveats. The uptick in cases is due, in part, to an increase in testing. Different states also define a "child" differently. For data reporting purposes, a majority of states use an age range between 0-17 and 0-19, but, in Tennessee and South Carolina, the cutoff is 20. In Alabama, it's 24. Also, according to the report, the number of positive tests among children could be far higher because of incomplete reporting from New York and Texas. In fact, Texas provided age distribution for just 8% of its confirmed COVID-19 cases and was excluded from many of the report's findings.

If there is good news in such a report, it's that, in spite of the uptick in child infection rates, the data also show that most children do not get critically ill with the disease and that, among the states that reported hospitalization data, the current hospitalization rate for children remains low, at 2%. What's less clear is how effectively children would spread the virus in a classroom setting, not only to friends and classmates but to teachers and school staff.

Data from South Korea suggest that children younger than 10 may not spread the disease easily, but that teenagers do — perhaps as effectively as adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers another cautionary tale, for schools considering reopening: In late June, the disease spread quickly among staff and children at a Georgia sleepaway camp. In a matter of days, at least 260 campers and teen staffers tested positive. Interestingly, of the campers tested, the youngest campers, ages 6 to 10, had the highest infection rate: Fifty-one percent tested positive.

In recent weeks, school districts across the country have announced their plans for the fall. Last week, Chicago became the latest big-city district to announce it would not yet allow students to return to classrooms because of a recent surge in coronavirus rates there.

"While Chicago remains in a better place than many other regions of the country," said Dr. Allison Arwady, the Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner, "these recent trends are very concerning."

But in many communities, the decision to reopen schools is being driven by politics, not local public health conditions. In Florida and Texas, some public health officials have been reportedly sidelined by state leaders who have been outspoken in their desire for schools to reopen quickly.

In a recent review of school reopening plans and local voting trends, Jon Valant of the Brookings Institution found no relationship statistically between reopening decisions and counties' new COVID-19 cases per capita. Instead, he found that "on average, districts that have announced plans to reopen in person are located in counties in which 55% voted for Trump in 2016, compared [with] 35% in districts that have announced plans for remote learning only."

Last week, students at Georgia's North Paulding High School posted photos and videos showing packed hallways at the school and few students wearing face coverings. Though the district is in an outer suburb of Atlanta, where infection rates remain relatively high, schools reopened for in-person instruction last week. This weekend, though, the school reported that six students and three staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus and that in-person classes would temporarily move online to give the school time to disinfect.

What does all this mean for schools?

"In places where there is really good control of the virus," O'Leary said, "with mitigation measures in place, I think it's reasonably safe to open schools. We're never going to get to zero risk."

New York City is a prime example of a school district that plans to reopen its schools partially this fall because the broader community followed safety guidelines and dramatically reduced infection rates, with 1% of coronavirus tests now turning out positive.

But in places where the virus is still spreading widely, O'Leary said, these new data are an important reminder that reopening schools may not be safe. If the coronavirus is circulating in a community, he said, it is inevitable it will follow students and staff to school.

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Do you remember early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of talk about how maybe kids don't get coronavirus or they're less likely to get it than adults? Some new numbers suggest that may not be the case. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association reviewed state-level data and found 97,000 kids tested positive for the virus in just the last two weeks of July. So what does this mean for plans to reopen schools?

NPR's Cory Turner is on the line. Good morning, Cory.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we have all of this data from states gathered in a report. And what does the report say?

TURNER: Well, we've got 97,000 kids testing positive for COVID in just that two-week period at the end of July. That is, for context, a 40% increase over the previous total, which has been building slowly since the pandemic began. According to these state-level data, at least 340,000 children in the U.S. have now tested positive, and that number and this report offer, you know, a powerful rebuttal to President Trump's claim just last week that children are, quote, "almost immune from this disease." Trump suggested yesterday he meant kids don't get very sick. About that, he is right. But children do get the disease. And they do spread it, especially older children.

KING: Is it possible that this surge is happening because more kids are being tested?

TURNER: I think that is part of it but not all of it. I spoke with Dr. Sean O'Leary. He's a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado.

SEAN O'LEARY: Clearly, more children are getting infected. I think we can say that because the rates of infection have gone up in the places where we're seeing more children getting infected.

TURNER: O'Leary says, you know, look at what was happening in the country during those last two weeks of July. Many states were seeing infection rates skyrocket. And researchers note, you know, those same states, largely in the South and the West, accounted for over 7 out of 10 of these new child cases.

KING: Wow. So what does this mean for schools deciding whether they should reopen - what, if anything?

TURNER: Well, it's interesting. I think my answer changed late yesterday when Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced yesterday that he was recommending schools there delay in-person classes for at least a little while longer. And he pointed to this new report.


ANDY BESHEAR: Hopefully, y'all saw this news nationally. A hundred thousand kids tested positive in the United States in just the last two weeks of July. It is a myth that kids do not get this virus.

TURNER: Noel, Beshear and Kentucky really stand out here because we've seen other states with relatively high infection rates push for schools to reopen in spite of public health warnings. You know, every expert I talked to says schools don't exist in a vacuum and community infection rates should be central to the decision of when and how to reopen. That's why, you know, with rates low, New York City is planning to reopen schools. But it's also why schools in Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, where rates are still relatively high, are seeing infections follow kids and staff to class.

KING: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.