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Young Children May Have Higher Coronavirus Levels, Raising Concerns About Schools Reopening

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Young Children May Have Higher Coronavirus Levels, Raising Concerns About Schools Reopening
A group of children eat ice cream in Washington Square Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 25, 2020 in New York City. Gotham / Getty Images

As the debate about reopening schools continues in the U.S., a new study has found that children under five might have 10 to 100 times more coronavirus in their upper respiratory tracts than adults.


The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics Thursday, does not prove that children are passing on the virus, but does suggest that they could be "important drivers" of community spread. And this raises concerns about what will happen when and if children return to school, the researchers said.

"The school situation is so complicated — there are many nuances beyond just the scientific one," study leader and Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago pediatric infectious diseases expert Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent told The New York Times. "But one takeaway from this is that we can't assume that just because kids aren't getting sick, or very sick, that they don't have the virus."

The assumption that young children are not a driving force behind disease outbreaks is one of the arguments for reopening schools in the fall.

In recommending in-person schooling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that current data suggests low rates of transmission between school age children or from students to teachers. The study authors acknowledged this, but also said the evidence was limited.

"Early reports did not find strong evidence of children as major contributors to SARS-CoV-2 spread, but school closures early in pandemic responses thwarted larger-scale investigations of schools as a source of community transmission," they wrote. "As public health systems look to reopen schools and day cares, understanding transmission potential in children will be important to guide public health measures."

The research was inspired when Dr. Heald-Sargent noticed that children's coronavirus tests were showing up positive after fewer cycles, The New York Times explained. Each cycle picks up more virus, so a low "cycle threshold," or C.T., means more virus in the sample.

"It wasn't even something we had set out to look for," she told The New York Times.

So the researchers looked at 145 nasal tests from patients in the Chicago area with mild to moderate symptoms who were tested within one week of falling ill, AFP explained. The tests, conducted between March 23 and April 27, came from three different age brackets. Forty-six were from children under 5, 51 from children aged five to 17 and 48 from adults aged 18 to 65.

Older children and adults had similar median C.T.s, but the median C.T. for younger children was significantly lower, the study found.

"The observed differences in median CT values between young children and adults approximate a 10-fold to 100-fold greater amount of SARS-CoV-2 in the upper respiratory tract of young children," the scientists concluded.

One limitation of the study is that the tests pick up the virus's RNA, not live virus itself. The study authors said that higher levels of virus nucleic acid in children have been shown to correlate with the ability to grow live virus from samples in the lab. However, other scientists said that the study would be more conclusive if the researchers had tested for live virus.

"I suspect that it probably will translate into meaning that there is more actual virus there as well, but we can't say that without seeing the data," Juliet Morrison, a virologist at the University of California, Riverside who was not involved with the study, told The New York Times.

The study's results are backed up by other research. German scientists found that asymptomatic children still had viral loads as high or higher than adults, and a French study found children without symptoms had similar C.T. values to children who were visibly sick.

However, it is possible that young children's higher viral load does not translate to higher transmission. A South Korean study found that children aged 10 to 19 spread coronavirus in the home at levels equal to adults, but children under nine did not, according to AFP.

Still, some external public health experts think the results of the JAMA Pediatrics study should be included in the discussion of reopening schools.

"Now that we're rolling into the end of July and looking at trying to open up schools the next month, this really needs to be considered," University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk,, who was not involved with the research, told The New York times.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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