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Virologist: Still unclear if kids under 12 are less susceptible to COVID

Masked school children wait to have their portraits taken during picture day at Rogers International School on Sept. 23, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. Most students at Stamford Public Schools are taking part in a hybrid education model. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The global COVID death toll crossed more than one million this week. Meanwhile, more countries are now grappling with second waves of the pandemic. When countries that were more strict in shutting down than the United States are seeing spikes, what does that mean for us?

“It just really goes to show that we can’t allow ourselves to become complacent about this virus because until we can completely get rid of it, for the most part by a safe and effective vaccine, there always will be some virus circulating within the population,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen, virologist at Columbia University, told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show.

“And if you relax the measures that have been taken to discourage transmission, then those case numbers are going to start going back up,” she added.

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Additionally, as fall and winter months approach, it’s likely that people will be indoors more often or may return to work or school. All of these environments, Rasmussen says, are great environments for the virus to spread.

“As long as there’s a little bit of virus out there, there is the possibility that it can come roaring back,” she said.

Determining how susceptible kids are to COVID

The CDC published a new report this week that indicates kids under the age of 12 may be less likely than teens to contract COVID. However, Rasmussen pointed out that this is just one report, and it’s potentially a bit misleading.

“If it’s the paper that you’re referring to that I’m thinking of, it doesn’t actually show that kids under 12 are less susceptible,” she explained. “What it does suggest is that maybe those cases are not diagnosed as frequently because those cases are more likely to be asymptomatic or extremely mild.”

While it may appear that kids are getting COVID less than adults or older students, it could be because asymptomatic and mild cases are less likely to be recognized.

“I think we still don’t really know if kids under 12 are at a lower susceptibility, meaning that they are more resistant to the virus,” Rasmussen said. “It may just be that we’re not picking up many of those cases because they are less susceptible to developing severe disease.”

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In what Rasmussen refers to as “measured good news,” the Trump administration announced that they were going to send out 150 million rapid COVID-19 tests across the country.

“This is really good news in the sense that we definitely need more testing,” she said. “Now, it’s measured because it’s still not enough testing, but any more testing is going to be a benefit, especially these rapid tests that will allow people to find out information much more quickly about whether or not they have coronavirus and need to be isolated.”

“If people know that sooner than later they can isolate themselves and not potentially expose other people,” she added. “That will reduce community transmission. So overall, more testing is always good news.”

For now, the nasopharyngeal swab tests that most people receive in Washington state if you were to go get tested, are very accurate, Rasmussen said, almost too accurate, in a way.

“The issue with them being too accurate is that they can’t distinguish somebody who is just getting coronavirus, who may have low levels of virus, from somebody who has already recovered from it and has residual virus,” she explained. “And the reason why that’s important is that if they catch you early on an infection, you need to be isolated because you’re likely to become very contagious within the next day or two. If you are recovering from coronavirus, and it detects it, that’s probably just detecting residual virus that’s no longer infectious.”

“But the good news is those tests are highly specific,” she added. “If you test positive, that means that you either are getting coronavirus or you already had it, but it should be able to detect very, very low levels of the genetic material of the virus. They’re also very, very specific, so there’s a very low rate of false positive. It’s not zero, but it’s it’s pretty low.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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