When officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that it is likely not a matter of if but when the new coronavirus spreads in the United States, my first thought was of my own little germ factories: my kids. One is in elementary school, the other is in day care. One or both of them has been sniffling — or worse — since September. I worry about what an outbreak here could portend for them.
Also concerned? Here’s what we know so far — and what parents should keep in mind when it comes to keeping their kids healthy.
There’s no evidence that kids are more susceptible to the virus.
First, an important note: There is a lot that is unclear at this point.
“We don’t know why kids seem to be not in the news,” Dr. Aaron Milstone, an epidemiologist and professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told HuffPost. “The news we’re getting is filtered, and all we know is what we hear.”
Kids come down with respiratory viruses often. Experts say that it is not unusual for a healthy child who goes to school or day care to come down with up to 10 a season — partly because they’re just around a lot of other children and partly because they tend to be a bit more lax about things like keeping their hands to themselves or washing them. Or not sneezing on friends. Also, their little immune systems are still developing.
Right now, however, there is no evidence that kids are any more likely than adults to come down with this particular coronavirus, the CDC says. And the agency stresses that the majority of confirmed cases in China were in adults. Also notable: The largest study we have so far on the outbreak of this coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, which looked at more than 44,000 cases in China, found no deaths among children younger than 9.
There is some evidence that kids have milder symptoms.
The limited information we do have on children affected with the virus in China suggests that those with confirmed cases had relatively mild symptoms: runny nose, fever, cough and some gastrointestinal issues.
“Though severe complications (e.g., acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock) have been reported,” the CDC states, “they appear to be uncommon.” Children with underlying health conditions may have a higher risk of developing more serious symptoms.
Why healthy kids might have a milder reaction to the virus than adults isn’t yet clear.
“Kids have the benefit that most of them are pretty healthy, so that might play a part in why they have a little bit milder symptoms,” explained Dr. Andrew Janowski, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
Janowski said there are examples of viral outbreaks in the past in which children tended to fare better than adults, including the 1918 influenza outbreak. He explained that young adults may have had immune responses to the virus that were almost too strong. But children’s developing immune systems may have actually benefited them, though again it is premature to say whether something similar could be happening with COVID-19.
Parents can do a few things to prepare.
“It’s just so hard to predict what this virus could do in the United States,” Janowski said. “Are we going to see a large outbreak? Is it going to be mostly isolated to a few pockets? If you think about what happened with SARS, yes, we did see some transmission to Canada and the United States, but we didn’t see a large outbreak.” Again, at this point, we just don’t know.
Stay up to date on your kids’ immunizations, first, because the flu is currently a much greater threat to kids in the United States than the coronavirus, and, second, because it could help your kids stay healthy overall, which could help them fight off COVID-19 if it comes to that.
Now is the time to be particularly mindful about keeping children home from school or day care if they’re sick. And talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about travel. If the virus spreads in the United States, “social distancing measures” in places like schools, day cares and other public spaces might become important, but we’re not there right now — and may never be.
So experts’ top tip is generally to wash your hands and your children’s hands often — for at least 20 seconds. (Encourage your kiddo to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.)
That said, I recently watched my toddler engage in what I can only describe as an enthusiastic licking fight with one of his buddies, so it’s hard to keep little kids from passing germs back and forth. At a certain point, there’s not much you can do.
“People can really make themselves a little bit crazy by trying to control everything their kids are doing, and you can’t,” Milstone said.