Kids are back in school. The federal government seems to be on the verge of approving vaccines for younger children. And as more adults are fully vaccinated, much of the US is slowly returning to normal.
But there remains a lingering question, particularly for parents of young children: What is the risk of Covid-19 to kids, especially after the rise of the delta variant?
There were reports this summer of more children under 18 falling ill with Covid-19, and some pediatric hospital wards filling up, leading many to believe that the pandemic is now a serious threat to children, too. At the very least, it’s abundantly clear now that children can be infected by and transmit the coronavirus.
But experts maintain that the risks most children face from Covid-19 are low, even with the delta variant. “The risk in children has not changed with the new variant as far as we can tell,” Betsy Herold, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told me.
Herold estimates that less than 2 percent of children known to be infected by the coronavirus are hospitalized, and less than 0.03 percent of those infected die. It’s difficult to draw direct comparisons to American adults now that two-thirds in the US are vaccinated, while most kids aren’t. But before widespread vaccination, about 10 percent of people infected with Covid-19 were hospitalized, and around 1 percent died.
While there isn’t as much research on children and Covid-19 as experts would prefer, the data we do have suggests the risk of longer-term consequences, like long Covid or MIS-C (in which several organs become inflamed), is also very low.
The delta variant is both more transmissible and more widespread than earlier variants, which has meant that even a low-risk disease has filled up many pediatric wards. But while delta has made more children sick, it has not made infected children sicker — it doesn’t appear to be linked to worse disease among kids, experts said.
That’s still a public health problem. If the risk of death for children is around 0.01 percent and 1,000 children are infected, you would expect no deaths. But if 1 million are infected, you would expect 100 deaths. Increased transmission, not a deadlier virus, helps explain why pediatric wards are more crowded now than they were earlier in the pandemic, and shows that even a low-risk disease could lead to many deaths if enough children catch it. With nearly 5 million children with confirmed infections in the US so far, we are seeing that in the real world.