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Kids Carry Surprisingly High COVID-19 Viral Loads, Report Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Kids can test positive for and transmit COVID-19 without experiencing symptoms.
  • Recent findings indicate kids can carry extremely high levels of virus despite this lack of symptoms.
  • This is ominous information for schools looking to reopen, since a lack of symptoms will make it even more difficult to track and control the spread of COVID-19.

Despite an overall lack of symptoms, COVID-positive kids are found to have viral loads similar to those of critically ill adults. These findings fuel concerns that kids may be silent spreaders of the disease.

In any given classroom of kids who appear healthy, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is still present. That’s the conclusion that can be drawn based on a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics that found out of 192 asymptomatic children, 26% tested positive for COVID-19. 

What Is Viral Load?

viral load refers to the quantity of virus within blood plasma or saliva and can influence transmission risk and disease severity in viral illnesses.

Kids and Covid: Conflicting Information

Scientists don’t quite know why the novel coronavirus affects kids much differently than adults. That lack of knowledge has fueled debates about whether or not schools should reopen this fall.

Advocates for in-person education cite studies claiming that kids tend not to spread the virus as much as adults. But distance learning supporters look to studies like this one, which claims that kids are actually more likely to spread the virus since they often remain asymptomatic. 

Early on, kids were thought to have been spared the worst of the coronavirus. But as the school year draws near, the US is seeing more and more infections of COVID-19 among kids younger than 18.

Recent CDC data indicates that as kids have slowly left their homes and started socializing more, they’re responsible for more than 6% of new infections in the US. An article in Bloomberg indicates states like California and Mississippi are reporting rates closer to 10% of overall cases. 

Asymptomatic Carriers

But can kids who are asymptomatic carriers actually spread the virus? It’s definitely possible, says Char Harris, senior epidemiologist with Unity Band, a smart wearable device and app specifically designed to help users manage their COVID-19 exposure risk. “Like anyone else who is COVID positive but asymptomatic, they are spreading it by being in close proximity to others where proper safety guidelines such as social distancing, mask wearing and regular hand washing/sanitation procedures aren’t being followed.”

Char Harris

Like anyone else who is COVID positive but asymptomatic, kids are spreading it by being in close proximity to others where proper safety guidelines such as social distancing, mask wearing and regular hand washing/sanitation procedures aren’t being followed.

— Char Harris

What’s more, the study indicates that viral load in kids is highest in the first two days of illness, which may indicate that kids aren’t asymptomatic as much as they are presymptomatic.

Either way, much of the research centered around kids and COVID tends to agree that kids experience much milder symptoms overall than their adult counterparts. Clearly, that can present a challenge when it comes to identifying and isolating cases of COVID-19. 

Viral Load in Children

A first-of-its-kind study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine Journal showed “significant independent association between viral load and mortality.” Prior to this study, not much was known about whether viral load was a significant factor in the spread of COVID-19, but the conclusion can be drawn that a higher viral load may contribute to higher rates of spread. 

How Does This Information Affect Schools? 

It all comes down to defining an accurate picture of what COVID-19 looks like in children. As this information continues to evolve, schools may have to reevaluate the measures they put into place to prevent community spread.

The study reports that only half of kids who tested positive for COVID-19 present with any sort of fever. That means daily temperature checks, a staple when it comes to preventative measures to check for possible COVID infections, may not be as effective in a school setting. 

In addition, schools that opt for social distancing less than 6 feet, a decision that the AAP and CDC differ on, may want to reevaluate based on these more recent findings. With exceptionally high viral loads, kids may be able to spread the virus just as effectively as adults, which would require schools to follow the CDC’s recommended spacing of six feet.

Clearly, that requirement will stress many overburdened school buildings, forcing them into a hybrid or distance learning model rather than having all students present in the buildings at the same time. 

What This Means for You

More research is needed to know exactly what role kids play in the COVID transmission link. This lack of clarity makes the effort to reopen schools akin to chasing a moving target. At a minimum, schools that are opening for in-person schooling would be wise to stringently follow established CDC guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus, including mask wearing and social distancing. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Yonker LM, Neilan AM, Bartsch Y, et al. Pediatric SARS-CoV-2: Clinical presentation, infectivity, and immune responses [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 18]J Pediatr. 2020;S0022-3476(20)31023-4. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.08.037

  2. CDC. CDC COVID data tracker. Updated August 27, 2020.

  3. Pujadas E, Chaudhry F, McBride R, et al. SARS-CoV-2 viral load predicts COVID-19 mortality [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 6]Lancet Respir Med. 2020;S2213-2600(20)30354-4. doi:10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30354-4