Thanks to the rise of the delta variant, preventing younger children from spreading coronavirus is vital as they return to school, experts say.
While children remain at lower risk of becoming hospitalized from COVID-19, they are at higher risk of spreading the more contagious delta variant. That’s because the variant is most likely to spread among unvaccinated individuals, said state epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore.
Wearing masks when in groups of people remains the best step to preventing that, said Dr. Danny Benjamin, a Duke University pediatrics professor and co-investigator of the ABC Science Collaborative.
“It’s pretty simple: either mask or vaccinate,” Benjamin said. “If you are not going to mask or vaccinate, we’re going to see more COVID-19 in schools since it is a highly transmissible virus.”
While over half of U.S. residents have been vaccinated with at least one dose, those younger than 18 are much less likely to be vaccinated. In North Carolina, for instance, only 10.7% of people younger than 18 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to Mayo Clinic data.
Just the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for children 12 years and older. And clinical trials are still being conducted to test the safety of vaccines for children younger than 12 years old.
There are steps families can take to reduce the risks of children spreading the variant, said Benjamin. One is to vaccinate all eligible people in a household. When people are immunized, they are less likely to get infected from a child or spread infection in their community.
The other step is to require that children wear masks at school. Masking policies are especially crucial for kindergarten through eighth grade students, Benjamin stressed.
On Friday, the CDC recommended that all unvaccinated students and staff wear masks at school. In North Carolina, the state’s StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit recommends children over the age of 5 and employees to wear masks.
In this state, there is evidence that masking works. Wearing face covers prevented coronavirus transmission in North Carolina schools with in-person instruction this year, according to an ABC Science Collaborative report prepared for the state Department of Public Instruction.
That was true whether or not students were required to remain three feet apart from each other while in school, the group found.
“It’s not that schools are safe and it’s not that schools are unsafe,” Benjamin said. “If you act as though we have a respiratory virus and you act in ways to prevent infection like we do in the healthcare environment, then school can be conducted safely.”