Children infected with COVID-19 have a higher level of virus in their airways than adults hospitalized with the illness, according to a new study by Massachusetts General Hospital and Mass General Hospital for Children.
The study indicates children may have a larger role in the community spread of COVID-19 than originally thought.
But at least one Connecticut health expert said the study doesn’t prove there’s increased transmission of the virus due to young children.
In the study, published last week in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers followed 192 children age 0 to 22. Of those, 49 children tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — and 18 other children had late-onset, COVID-related illness. According to the research, infected children were shown to have a significantly higher level of virus in the nose and throat than adults hospitalized in intensive care units with COVID-19.
The study states there is a greater risk of transmission with a higher viral load. That’s definitely a concern, particularly with many Connecticut schools set to return for in-person instruction, said Michael Urban, director of occupational therapy at the University of New Haven.
“The concern that children have always been a silent carrier raises a larger risk for the caretakers and teachers who — if not adhering to COVID guidelines of wearing a mask, washing hands properly and physically distancing themselves — can be at risk of contracting the virus and also spreading it,” Urban said.
He said the research is even more evidence that parents need to make sure their children know the importance of infection prevention precautions.
“Parents have a civic responsibility to have their kids learn the reason to wear a mask, be a role model and start to have the children wear the mask and correct them when they pull the mask down over their nose,” Urban said.
However, another expert said, while an increased viral load in children can lead to a greater risk of transmission, it’s only one factor.
“That is one factor that can lead to transmission of the disease, but it’s not the only factor that one needs to think about,” said Thomas Murray, associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. “The other factor is how far we spread respiratory secretion when we cough and exercise.”
Murray said research has shown that older children, adolescents and adults tend to spread secretions farther than young children.
Thus, he said, even with the information outlined in the Massachusetts General study, “it’s still not clear how much children are contributing to the spread. The study doesn’t show transmission of the virus, and I think that’s important.”
Still, Murray said the study emphasized the need for infection prevention measures.
“It reinforces the importance of the masking and the social distancing measures that have already been put in place,” Murray said. “Whenever you bring large groups of people together, the likelihood of spread goes up.”