WESTWOOD, Mass. — Maureen Malley thinks it’s a good idea her grandchild is back in school.
“I’ve been through trying to help with online schooling, and it’s not fun,” she said. “It’s not fun for a first grader. I did that a couple of weeks ago and it’s a long time for a kid to be looking at a computer.”
Still, she is concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among kids. Recent state data shows that 60% of the positive cases in those ages 0-19 were in children ages 14-and-under.
“Who knows what these variants can do,” Malley said. “They could affect children more than the regular one that we had at the beginning. So it’s scary. There’s not enough data to know all that much about this.”
More data is coming in every day about one of the variants, B.1.1.7, because it’s rapidly asserted dominance in the United States, just as it did months ago in Europe.
“B.1.1.7 is 50-70% more transmissible,” said Dr. Michael Koster, the division director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I. “And it looks like B.1.1.7 causes anywhere between 30-50% worse or severe illness.”
B.1.1.7 is also known to infect children more readily than its predecessor COVID, but Koster said the reality is infection is happening more in everybody.
“Across the globe, in the last six weeks, we’ve seen increases,” Koster said. “Across the United States in the last four weeks, we’ve seen increases. We’re lucky we’re not seeing the same increases as places like Michigan.”
In Michigan, the CDC reports 39% of cases are linked to B.1.1.7. Tennessee and Florida are close behind, with 35% and 34.5% of cases. Massachusetts ranks ninth among states reporting data in, with B.117 making up about 19% of total cases.
As for when the variant started having an effect in Massachusetts is hard to say. But, school COVID-19 data released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE] last week, showed staff and student cases nearly doubled during March.
“So [B.1.1.7] is worrisome in that we can see an increase in cases in schools,” said Epidemiologist Dr. Brooke Nichols of the Boston University School of Public Health. “And especially children seem to be slightly more symptomatic than they were previously.”
On the other hand, Nichols said vaccination of teachers and those most vulnerable to COVID-19 will make a difference.
“Even if they do become infected, even with B.1.1.7, the likelihood they get severe disease and die is almost 0%,” she said. “We’ll still see cases, but mortality will start to decline at the same time.”
At a certain point, Nichols said, society will have to decide how to handle the virus, once it is no longer a mortal threat to most of the population. However, that day has not arrived since most remain unvaccinated.
“It is still concerning, with our vaccine rates where they are, we have achieved nowhere near herd immunity,” Nichols said. “And so if you haven’t had the vaccine, you’re still completely susceptible to severe disease and potentially death.”
Children, however, are not highly susceptible to death, even with B.1.1.7, Koster said.
“We saw the mortality data come out from 2020 showing only 182 people under the age of 18 died,” he said. “Now that’s obviously someone’s children, someone’s brothers and sisters. So it’s more than a statistic. But it pales in comparison to the 550,000 adults who died.”
However, it’s still a good idea to do whatever possible to keep kids from getting COVID-19. Koster said recent studies showed children can have some of the same long-term effects from an infection that adults do.
“Kids probably have an element of cardiac inflammation even when they have mild disease,” he said. “[The researchers] also found in asymptomatic kids who had COVID-19 [that] there could be some coronary changes. Now remember, these are still very rare events.”
Koster said of more concern when it comes to variants is the rarer P-1, a cluster of which has been growing on Cape Cod. While currently available vaccines do seem to stop B.1.1.7 infections, there’s less certainty about how well they work against P.1.
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