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Study: Sweden didn’t see rise in COVID deaths with schools open

Puget Sound schools continue to grapple with the COVID crisis. (Seattle Public Schools, Facebook)

There are now some documented real-world case studies on the actual danger of reopening schools before everybody’s vaccinated. So what does the science say about returning to in-person learning? Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

“We have been discussing all along whether kids should be in school or shouldn’t be in school. And I think there’s been some pretty strong feelings amongst, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics that we probably should have kids back in school,” he said. “Dr. Redfield, the director of the CDC, has also said that we should have kids back in school. I think a lot of physicians feel that way. Clearly, a lot of parents feel that way.”

Sweden took a different approach to COVID-19, opting not to shutdown, vying for herd immunity, and opening schools.

“Sweden was one of the countries that decided not to shut down. They were going to try to develop herd immunity by not asking people to wear masks, but only asking them to socially distance,” Dr. Cohen explained. “And they left their schools open. So they had — to give an exact number — 1,951,905 children in Sweden as of Dec. 31, 2019, who were 1 to 16 years of age. What was really interesting is they looked at the number of deaths they had in the entire population of children pre-COVID, and so in the four months prior to COVID coming Sweden they had a total of 65 deaths.”

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“And then they looked at the number of deaths in the first four months that they had COVID, and they had a total of 69 deaths,” he continued. “So basically there was no difference between the number of kids who died out of those nearly two million children pre-COVID than there was post-COVID.”

The other concern about returning the classroom is whether students were spreading COVID to teachers, but those numbers appeared low as well.

“Now the other concern, obviously, is whether or not students can then bring it in to the school and give it to the teachers. Data from the Public Health Agency of Sweden showed that there were fewer than 10 preschool teachers and 20 school teachers in Sweden who ended up in intensive care for COVID-19 all the way up through June 30 of 2020. So they have a total of 103,596 school teachers, and they had 20 of them that ended up in the ICU, so it’s equal to 19 per 100,000,” he said.

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“So actually, compared with other occupations, excluding health care workers, this was a risk that was really pretty similar to everybody else in society,” he added.

While there haven’t been a great deal of case studies on this as of yet, an additional study out of Iceland showed similar results.

“There was also the Iceland study that looked at about 40,000 students, and they did both contact tracing as well as genomics on the virus to try and determine where it came from. And they found similar results that the likelihood of student to student transmission in school was actually incredibly low, and that for students who actually got COVID, the most likely place they were to get it was from their parents or somewhere else out in the community, and that teachers were not getting it from their students,” he said.

“So I personally feel, and I think this is why Dr. Redfield and the American Academy of Pediatrics has been advocating for students to be back in school, because I think the harms or the risk of staying home are actually worse than returning the kids to school.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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