Lemme start with the obvious chorus: COVID-19 is a mild illness in most people (about 8 out of 10) who get it. Most people who get infected will experience it like a common cold that doesn’t require medical intervention or hospitalization, their immune system will deal with it and they’ll recover. I’m not saying this for propaganda or to “stabilize” the economy. It’s just true from global surveillance thus far. In particular, our children are the least likely to suffer severe health consequences from COVID-19 because of their immune system’s familiarity with Coronaviruses at large. There are various different strains of Coronavirus, that along with Rhinoviruses, cause “the common cold.” Children often have 8-10 colds a year so they have lots of experience with them. Children may be able to quickly mount a response to COVID-19 and clear it out before it ever really takes over. However, it’s important to note children will play an important role in containing COVID-19 because they’ll spread it all over surfaces and rooms and stores and schools and movie theaters even when they truly don’t feel sick. Kids are often full of snot and they spread it all over the place. True story.
Let’s all take some comfort in the statistics (COVID-19 a no biggie infection for most) and recognize the greatest threat now is our anxiety with the barrage of news. Dr. Bryan Vartabedian dubbed this time an “infodemic.” I tend to agree. HOWEVER: how we behave in the upcoming month or two will change the trajectory of the illness’ impact on our families’ lives. As you know, those at greatest risks for severe infections are those with underlying health problems and those who are past middle-age. If you’re not that person, your role is to think of how you protect them. Your ease in life, your bank account, your children’s wellbeing … they all depend on it. Don’t hang out with your parents or a friend with underlying asthma if you’ve got a runny nose. Don’t try to blame it away as a nothing. During this outbreak there is no such thing as “a nothing cold” until a laboratory has proven otherwise.
I like this succinct, data-driven post: “Don’t Accidentally Kill Grandma and Grandpa with Coronavirus”
Updates on Coronavirus:
As many of you know, ongoing spread across our country has continued. The numbers will be up-to-date here from CDC. Risks today remain low to you and your family but risks naturally increase as infections move around our communities. This will continue to expand this month. Then as summer comes, it’s likely that infections will decrease as we all open our doors and stop sharing inside spaces. Like influenza, COVID-19 will likely have a seasonal component. Next winter, in fact, may be when we see the most infection if the world cannot contain and slow the spread.
Why Is Coronavirus Different From Other Colds?
What’s different about COVID-19 and what makes it “novel” is that it’s a new infection in humans and is likely to have been transmitted from animals to humans and when it did the virus evolved (making it a bit more dangerous). It makes our immunity to it somewhat more naive. Our immune system is just unfamiliar and inexperienced fighting off these kinds of viruses (from animals) and can be surprised when faced with a new kind of infection. In those with weaker immune systems (the elderly, for example) it is even harder. Hence the higher risk.
Coronavirus COVID-19 is thought to be spread like other upper respiratory infections (droplets in the air from people breathing, coughing, sneezing) or in mucus or secretions on hard surfaces. People are likely spreading infection a day or two before they feel crummy (if they ever do) so it makes the spread a bit silent. COVID-19 is thought to survive a few hours on surfaces (think door handles, counters, bathrooms, etc). This is why washing your hands frequently when in public areas is a smart idea.
Coronavirus In Children
Coronaviruses are common viruses in humans that cause the common cold. Coronaviruses get their name because of the distinctive crown-like (coronas) spikes seen on the virus’ surface under the microscope. Parents can take some comfort in knowing that children are thought to be somewhat protected from severe infections from COVID-19. There are 4 types of Coronaviruses that are a source of many common colds, especially in children. One reason children are thought not to be as severely impacted from COVID-19 is perhaps due to their partial protection and temporal proximity to colds they get caused by other coronaviruses. When children are exposed to COVID-19, their immune systems may recognize and clear it more quickly. For example, if your child had a cold a month ago from another more typical coronavirus, the immunity produced during that cold is likely around and will partially protect against a COVID-19 infection. It’s my expectation we’ll learn that daycare workers and school teachers and parents who care for young children will also have less severe infections because of their ongoing exposure and experience with common coronaviruses. Their immune systems may also be a bit more savvy when presented w COVID-19. We will know more about that as time unfolds.
Should You Send Your Children To School?
The short answer is unfortunately, it depends. As you’ve also heard, I continue to believe the risks from influenza for children are greater than the risks from COVID-19 right now in school settings — influenza is particularly hard on children this year and still active in the US (scroll down for the map). That being said, in communities that are working to prevent a bigger outbreak, having the entire community stay away from large congregations is one way to avoid spread. If your school makes the decision to do remote learning, it will only increase community protection.
What You Can Do To Reduce Risks:
- Stay home if you get a stuffy nose, a fever, or cough. Really.
- Wash your hands. As simple as it sounds, this will offer you the best protection because if you pick it up on your hands you won’t get infected until you touch an opening to your mucous membranes (your nose, mouth, eyes).
- Stay away from those who are ill, coughing, or sneezing. Guidance for 6-foot distance is smart. If you’re traveling in the airport, for example, just don’t stand in clumps of people when you can avoid it.
- Use of standard household cleaners on surfaces (bleach-containing are great) to keep your home un-germy.
- Work from home whenever you can right now, in states with active infections, but also in those without (that’s how you’ll prevent it in the first place). I work from home in Madison, WI and feel it’s both a good move and safer as the outbreak unfolds.
- Avoid travel to countries with more widespread outbreak (China, South Korea, Italy, etc).
What You DO NOT Need To Do:
- No need to wear a mask. Masks prevent droplets from your mouth and breath from entering the air around you. If you’re sick, it’s smart to wear a mask to protect others around you. Wearing a mask (that isn’t a respirator mask) on the train or in the grocery store now likely won’t protect you from others, unfortunately. I don’t have masks at home.
- Don’t read obsessively about COVID19 throughout the day. Pick a site you trust (I like the CDC United States page that’s updated daily at noon) and check it once a day. The rest of the time you’re devouring content you’re just increasing your anxiety without likely improving your safety. I hesitated even writing this, not wanting to contribute to the deluge.
Hope this helps. Happy to field questions.
Kim Osterhoudt says
Excellent information and thank you
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson says
Thanks for reading, Kim, and for taking the time to comment!!!
Jill Roark says
I always appreciate your voice of reason and your easily digestible content!
Jose Matozzi says
Thank you for your excellent and clear information.
Thank you for this information. You state that you think things may slow down as the US heads into Summer and people throw open their doors and let fresh air in but that your next winter could be where the disaster comes – what do you think the means for countries like Australia (where I live) who are just heading into winter now? Are we heading into catastrophic situations now? Thanks.
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson says
The true answer is of course no one knows. If containment efforts don’t increase and aren’t effective in US there may never be the pause over the summer making it seasonal. But for those entering infection season of influenza season (i.e. winter) like those of you in Southern Hemisphere, prevention efforts now seem vitally important. I’ve heard lots of theories but I suppose the truth is no one knows bc we just don’t have any long-term experience with this virus.
Peter Elias, MD says
Can you comment on playdates, especially in settings where schools are closed? Playdates are obviously a potential for creating vector chains. How much individual decision making is appropriate? For example, limit it to playdates among 2 or perhaps 3 families? Is it different in low-density versus high-density cohorts? Should parental occupation (ER nurse versus work from home consultant) make a difference? Are there actions that can lower the risk of playdates enough to make them a reasonable option: outdoor play, for example.
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson says
Hi, Dr. Elias,
So nice to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well despite all of this. It’s obviously complex – social isolation for any of us, and our children, is difficult to deal with. So, mitigating risk where you can, if you cannot entirely stay away from others, like you mention by limiting size is an approach. Outdoor play, etc. All smart and good ideas to lower risk. But part of me also feels like it doesn’t matter what you do for a living — that if we are to truly contain the surge and “flatten the curve” it’s NOW to be aggressive about social distance. Especially with our children who likely will be a big part of how the virus spreads. I in no way want to sound impractical, I get that it’s complicated for medical professionals and EMS and those providing food, etc. So I hate to render an opinion in that regard when I sincerely don’t think I have any more relevant expertise – we have so much uncertainty now, doing what we can to protect the spread in these upcoming weeks is likely what is best. At times it can be perfect and totally isolated, at times it likely cannot be. We will all do what we can and navigate this as responsibly as possible.
Tips for reducing risk with children together:
no children with symptoms (runny nose, cough, sneeze, and of course fever)
outdoor play (a hike, a playground where you use hand sanitizer afterwards, etc)
smaller numbers are better
ensuring none of these children have contact with those at high risk for COVID19 severe infection thereafter
See — I have nothing novel to say! But hopeful that helped even if it is murky. Take care!
Peter Elias, MD says