As COVID-19 Cases Among Kids Rise, Doctors Warn Parents: Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Doctors say masking and social distancing are still the best ways for kids to avoid transmitting the disease.

A woman and a child wear a mask
A woman and a child wear a mask outside a store in Schaumburg, Ill. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
A woman and a child wear a mask
A woman and a child wear a mask outside a store in Schaumburg, Ill. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

As COVID-19 Cases Among Kids Rise, Doctors Warn Parents: Don’t Let Your Guard Down

Doctors say masking and social distancing are still the best ways for kids to avoid transmitting the disease.

Officials in DuPage County, Ill. are sounding the alarm that COVID-19 cases are rising among older kids there.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, kids between the ages of 10 and 19 made up just about 5% of all COVID-19 cases in DuPage County. Now, as of July 19, they make up roughly 18% of all cases.

“We really hope that people understand that kids can contract this disease, they can carry it, they can pass it to others,” said Chris Hoff, director of community health resources at the county’s health department.

And experts say the increase among this age group is not unique to the west suburban county.

“It’s being seen across the country,” said Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease expert at University of Chicago Medicine. “And there’s several reasons for that,” she said, including increased testing, relaxed social distancing, and the start of group activities like camp.

For more context about how COVID-19 impacts kids, and how they contract and spread the virus, we turned to a pediatrician in DuPage County, Dr. Jihad Shoshara. The following are his answers to questions, edited for clarity and length.

Why do you think DuPage County is seeing this increase in COVID-19 cases among kids ages 10 to 19?

It’s a combination of things. The first is that the population which is the highest risk — the elderly and those with underlying conditions — is they’ve largely gotten the message, so they’re staying in and they’re transmitting the virus less.

Children have been cooped up for four months and are now starting to participate in things like summer camp, vacations, etc. We see and hear that teens and young adults do not adhere as strictly to social distancing and mask guidelines. All of those factors mean the virus is spreading along the easiest path it has available.

What do we know about how kids of that age are affected by COVID-19, and how has that understanding shifted during the pandemic?

The most serious harm of COVID-19 isn’t actually caused by the virus itself, but by an over-aggressive response of the immune system. That unbalanced response appears to occur much more in elderly people or people with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, hypertension and smoking.

Because children’s bodies can regulate themselves much better, they are less likely to have that inappropriate response and are more able to deal with the virus as if it’s a cold.

A study that came out of South Korea recently showed that 10- to 19-year-olds are most likely to spread the virus in their home. Tell us what we know about how kids can spread COVID-19.

We weren’t sure if young age in and of itself played a role in preventing the transmission, and what we see from that study is that it doesn’t.

The ability to transmit the virus like an adult, it really depends on how closely a child resembles one. If you’re an 11-year-old, but you’re adult-sized and can cough like an adult, then you’re probably more likely to spread the virus than a 14-year-old who is a smaller, late bloomer and coughs with less force.

Additionally, if the child’s adult-sized but has hygiene habits closer to that of a younger child, it may be harder to adhere to guidelines like an adult would. Kids are not as mature and they don’t remember things as well as adults. So we have to take a little extra caution to help them adhere to guidelines.

What does this mean for parents? How should they be thinking about things like summer camp or school in the fall?

We’re at the point across the state right now where the test positivity rate has started to increase from 3% to 4%. And this is happening largely because we have all let our guard down.

It’s important to remember that until a vaccine or treatment comes, that masking and social distancing are still the main means of preventing transmission and the return of large waves of cases.

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that in-person school, like a hybridized model, is still preferable where it can be done safely. But it’s success is also going to depend upon everybody adhering to these masking and social distancing guidelines.

How can parents talk to their kids about masks and social distancing?

I think the most important thing that parents can do is to model behavior, and then be straightforward and honest and say “Hey this is the best that we are doing for everyone’s health.”

Dr. Jihad Shoshara runs a pediatric practice in Naperville.

Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @MariahWoelfel. Araceli Aldana-Gomez produced the audio piece for air. You can follow her at @Araceli1010.