The risk of COVID-19 spread for children and students

Students stand by their desks
Kindergarten students in Kim Depuydt's classroom stand up for a song and dance during the first day of full classes back at school in South Elementary in St. Peter, Minn.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News File

Minnesota health officials are urging more testing of middle and high school students for COVID-19. They're increasingly concerned about spread of the virus among children who are not yet authorized for the vaccine.

This sets up a tough dynamic for parents. It can be hard to know how safe certain activities are for the family, if not everyone is immunized.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with Patsy Stinchfield, senior director of infection prevention and control at Children's Minnesota and an adviser to the CDC on vaccines.

The following is a lightly edited transcription of the interview. Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.

Folks are hearing about how young people in Michigan are really being hard hit by COVID. We had news this week in Minnesota that a first grader in Marshall died because of complications from COVID-19. So very sad. All this comes at a time when students are back in school. How worried should parents be right now?

Well, I think yes, it's tragic when anyone dies of COVID and for a child to die, which is less than 1 percent of all the deaths are in children, it does get all of our attention. I think parents really need to look at their household situation, who's vaccinated and who's unvaccinated, and think about your activities in terms of, we're only as safe as the least safe person.

So who is that in our household, that may be an unvaccinated adolescent, it may be a vaccinated mom who's undergoing chemotherapy, it's really kind of a risk-based decision for each family.

I'm wondering what portion of kids who contract COVID are developing these most serious cases?

Well, it's very, very small for kids to be positive. And so for example, at Children's Minnesota, we've tested over 52,000 children since the beginning of the pandemic, and only 2,700 of them have been positive with only 384 admissions.

Severe COVID in children does happen, but it is very rare. We also worry about long COVID in children or the post COVID syndrome known as MIS-C, this post-inflammatory condition. So there are lots of reasons to vaccinate those around children right now and then hope for our new recommendation for 12 and over that we expect in the next couple of weeks.

How does long COVID-19 manifest in kids?

Well, we see similar problems in children as an adult, sort of this brain fogginess, in an inability to do math, kind of just not being back to your normal self. It's almost as if you haven't shaken the virus yet. And so we know that this virus can manifest itself in so many different organs and different ways in both adults and kids. And so there's lots of reasons to prevent that disease for all ages.

I'm curious if the variants that we're seeing are more dangerous to kids in the original strain of the virus.

So the most common variant in Minnesota right now is that B.1.1.7. That was first in the UK, we don't think it's more dangerous to children. It is more infectious, more transmissible. And so when that is more contagious, you're going to have more adults, and therefore more children, it's proportional. It's not that it's affecting kids more directly. So it’s just more contagious.

And we're seeing a really nice drop in Minnesota with our vaccine rates climbing rapidly. You're seeing drops in nursing home residents, in staff, in teachers, in health care workers, everyone who's been vaccinated. And that's why kids, we really want them tested now, because the virus will seek and find those who are not immune and try to infect them. And so as soon as we can get anyone with symptoms tested, the better.

Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.