As a pediatrician, I love treating children, but I am well aware that the urgent care clinic where I work is not germ-free. Inevitably, I catch the occasional bug from a kid with a runny nose and a cough.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, I worried that I would treat children who were asymptomatic or mildly ill (“just a cold”), then get the virus myself and spread it to my parents or friends. Many teachers who are about to return to school have the same worries.
But we have known for months that the coronavirus does not act like normal cough and cold viruses that we often catch from children. In a surprise to pediatricians, teachers and parents alike, the virus behaves the opposite of what we are used to. Children and adolescents do not seem to get sick with Covid-19 as frequently as adults. And children, especially elementary school-aged children, do not seem to transmit it effectively to one another, nor to adults.
This has been documented in countries around the world, including Greece, Switzerland and Australia. Even when schools are open, most children who get ill are found to have been infected by someone in their household, not from a school contact.
These data put into context a recent study of 145 children and adults in Chicago in March and April that was widely reported. It found that young, symptomatic children had more of the virus in their noses than adults. Some speculated that this meant that the children could spread it as easily as adults. But the study was small and didn’t actually measure transmission; we learn much more useful information from the global data, which show it is unlikely that the increased viral load translates to increased infectiousness.