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How Does the COVID-19 Delta Variant Affect Kids?

blue gloved doctor giving a child a covid-19 test

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Key Takeaways

  • The COVID-19 Delta variant is highly contagious and spreading rapidly in unvaccinated individuals.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci recently stated that kids are at higher risk for infection, but the infection won't necessarily be worse than the Alpha variety.
  • Parents should get vaccinated themselves and continue to have their kids wear masks.

Just when parents thought they could finally start relaxing about COVID-19, the Delta variant showed up. We knew from the beginning of the pandemic that there might be future virus mutations, and now there are, causing parents to wonder if they need to reimplement all of the protective strategies they learned. 

On June 23, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and chief medical advisor to the president, commented on CBS This Morning that children “will more likely get infected” with this variant than the Alpha variety. This sparked some concern across the country from parents, childcare providers, and educators, who are continuing to try to protect unvaccinated children under 12 from the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that we’ve had four notable variants so far in the United States, named Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, starting with Alpha in December 2020 and progressing through Delta, which arrived March 2021. Luckily, they’ve also determined that “current authorized vaccines work on the circulating variants,” which they continue to study.

What Do We Know About the Delta Variant So Far?

Most importantly, we know that it spreads more easily than variants before it. Glenn Rapsinski, MD, pediatric infectious diseases fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, says that “data from the U.K. suggests this variant is 60% more transmissible than the highly transmissible Alpha variant.” 

Glenn Rapsinski, MD

In this case, children, especially under 12, are susceptible because they haven't been vaccinated against COVID.

— Glenn Rapsinski, MD

He explains that Dr. Fauci’s comments on the variant refer to increased transmissibility being a concern for any susceptible group. “In this case, children, especially under 12, are susceptible because they haven't been vaccinated against COVID,” he says.

The variant also has been linked in preliminary reports, Rapsinski explains, in which adults with Delta are more likely to need hospitalization than with Alpha. 

Where is it Spreading?

Scientists are studying Delta’s spread across the country, and the world, with a focus on which areas have been undervaccinated. According to CDC reports, just under half of the country’s population has been vaccinated (54.2% has had one dose and 46.4% has had both).

As of June 5, the CDC was reporting that the Delta variant represents about 25% of new cases in Department of Health and Human Services Region 8 (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah) and almost 35% in Region 7 (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas) and less than 20% in other regions.

“With its high transmissibility, it has the potential to become the dominant variant in the US, with fastest spread occurring in states and regions with low vaccine rates,” Rapsinski says. 

Elisa Song, MD, a holistic pediatrician in Belmont, CA, has been watching the spread in Israel, where 90% of a new surge of infections were caused by the Delta variant, she says. Israel’s data is also helping us understand how effective vaccines are against the variant. “50% of those infected with the Delta variant in Israel were considered fully vaccinated with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine,” she says.

A study released June 19 looking at antibodies from vaccinated people found that “neutralization capacity against the Delta variant was almost six times lower than against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she says. 

How Does the Variant Impact Kids?

While Rapsinski says adults are more likely to have serious illness from the Delta variant, he’s hesitant based on the current data to say the same for kids. One reassuring fact is that reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics show that even though the Delta variant is circulating, total cases in children are still down.

Elisa Song, MD

And thankfully, despite the many variants in the US, rates of pediatric hospitalization and deaths from COVID-9 have remained at a very low stable rate throughout the pandemic.

— Elisa Song, MD

“New weekly cases of COVID-19 infection in children have been steadily declining since the week of April 15 and have been very low since the week of June 3, and have made up an increasingly smaller percentage of all new US weekly reported cases,” Song explains. “And thankfully, despite the many variants in the US, rates of pediatric hospitalization and deaths from COVID-9 have remained at a very low stable rate throughout the pandemic.”

The potential symptoms that parents should watch out for are different than for the original strain of COVID-19. Song says the Delta variant may feel more like a bad cold in younger populations. Don’t rely anymore on that telltale sign of loss of taste and smell, which was so prevalent before.

Rapsinski has also seen some reports of more stomach symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Like former variants, children and adults can also contract the Delta variant but experience no symptoms at all.

What can Parents Do to Protect their Children?

There are several concrete steps that physicians say will limit your child’s chances of contracting the Delta variant, and COVID-19 in general.

Get Vaccinated

While children under 12 don’t have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, parents do, and their choice to get vaccinated can protect their children, Song explains. She says a recent study found that for every 20-point increase in the rate of vaccination among adults, the risk of infection in children is reduced by half.

Parents’ vaccines have been shown to minimize them becoming “carriers,” meaning they are less likely to transmit the virus to others, including their children, according to Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist and travel medicine physician at KIDZ Medical in Doral, Florida.

“Carriers are people who may harbor the virus in their nasopharyngeal area, and may not have symptoms—but they can transmit the virus to others who may become ill. Parents can prevent transmitting this virus to their children by being fully vaccinated with either Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.”

Slow Your “Reopening” Plans

While everyone is excited to fully reopen all aspects of society, from concerts to beach trips to weddings, Song recommends parents do so slowly. “We must balance the need for ‘normalcy’ and supporting our children’s mental and social health needs with the risk of opening up too quickly and carelessly with the many unknowns that the Delta variant brings.” So, consider moving get-togethers outside whenever possible, and keep gatherings small.

She hopes this will prevent future lockdowns from reoccurring. “It’s not over yet, and the back-and-forth of swinging from blissful freedom back to crushing lockdowns may be more detrimental to the mental health of our children than a more paced, gradual reopening that uses good data to expand activities safely.”

Rethink Travel Details

While everyone has been itching to travel for over a year, it might be worth reconsidering certain details of your travel plans that increase exposure, Mavunda recommends. She provides specific ways to travel while reducing the risk of contracting the Delta variant:

  • Choose direct flights at the least popular times
  • Be aware that airports aren’t the most conducive to social distancing
  • Avoid taking a cruise
  • Train travel may be okay if you can maintain some social distancing
  • Wash your hands frequently and wear masks while traveling

Stay Calm

Just as some parents felt panicky at the beginning of the pandemic, new strains may bring up these feelings again. But, Song says, “Do parents need to be more worried for their children? Not necessarily.” Instead, she cautions against making decisions out of fear. 

“During the pandemic, fear has been the driving factor for many policy and parental decisions. It’s time to make decisions based on facts over fear.”

What This Means For You

The Delta variant is concerning, but parents shouldn’t panic. This variant is highly contagious in general, but kids still appear to have mild cases of illness. If your child is unvaccinated you should continue to have them wear masks and social distance. Vaccines for kids will hopefully be available soon. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID data tracker: variant proportions. Updated June 29, 2021.