MADISON, Wis.— Children are testing positive for coronavirus more than any other age group in Wisconsin right now.
Earlier on in the pandemic, the thought was that kids can’t spread the virus as much as adults. While the answer isn’t perfectly clear yet, evidence seems to dispute the idea that kids aren’t as contagious. However, kids are overall less severely impacted by the virus symptoms.
It’s a good news, bad news situation: Many adults are becoming protected thanks to the vaccine, leading to looser restrictions. But with more activities now allowed, and because children aren’t eligible for the vaccine, kids are now carrying the brunt of the virus in Wisconsin.
“There’s a very important segment of our community, meaning our kids, who are susceptible to the virus,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s Chief Medical Officer. “They can become infected, they can spread it to each other, and they can spread it to vulnerable unvaccinated adults.”
For the first time in the entire pandemic, the biggest age group getting sick in Wisconsin is children.
“As of this week, the highest number of cases in any age group is among those under 18,” Westergaard said.
The B.1.1.7 variant of the virus is more contagious, and is likely to be a leading strain across the Badger State, if not the leading strain. That could be partially responsible for the spike in cases in kids.
Earlier this week, officials announced an outbreak linked to a day care center in Dane County. Now 35 people have tested positive for COVID-19. Twenty-one of them are children and staff, while 14 of them are family members of those children and staff.
Kids are at the center of other outbreaks across the country. More than 750 schools in Minnesota have active infections, likely are many due to virus variants. There’s a major outbreak in Michigan, that the CDC said is largely linked to kids, and probably includes spread at indoor sports activities.
“School sports, particularly team sports, which people engage in close contact without masks,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading COVID-19 advisors. “I think that is what is explaining these surges of cases in young individuals.”
Dr. Nasia Safdar, head of UW Health Infection Control and in charge of the Safdar Research Lab, said eliminating all risk is impossible. But if your child is in day care or plays indoor sports, now may be the time to consider the precautions and their risk factors. For kids with health conditions, it may be smart to pull them out of higher-risk settings temporarily.
“If the child is someone who is at high risk for complications, someone with co-morbid illnesses or a compromised immune system, that probably is not the group that we should feel comfortable about with indoor close contact sports,” she said.
She said that decision looks different for every family.
“It’s a trade off. If the sport is really improving the mental and physical health of the child, then they may decide that the small risk of a potential event is worth taking,” she said. “But I would say that you have to look at the pros and cons, you do want to make sure that testing is readily available, because that is something that parents can feel reassured about, if the child gets tested frequently and continues to test negative.”
State officials said as restrictions loosen, and adults get vaccinated, children will be one of the highest-risk groups to spread COVID-19.
“The stakes are higher. There’s less room for error. There’s less of a buffer,” Westergaard said. “All of the strategies that we’ve been putting in place for the last year are now more important than ever to protect young people from getting infected.”