CDC: Teens are twice as likely as younger kids to be diagnosed with COVID-19

The CDC found that kids age 12 to 17 had nearly twice the number of infections than kids age 5 to 11. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

New research has found that teens are infected with COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate as younger children.

The analysis, which was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed 277,285 coronavirus cases in children between the age of 5 and 17 who were diagnosed with the virus between March and September. The researchers found that young people 12 to 17 years old had nearly twice the number of infections than kids age 5 to 11. Children with underlying health conditions were more likely to have severe outcomes, the CDC report found.

The data also revealed that 58 percent of children with COVID-19 infections had at least one symptom of the virus, but only 5 percent had no symptoms. (There was no information provided on symptoms for 37 percent of children.)

“It is important for schools and communities to monitor multiple indicators of COVID-19 among school-aged children and layer prevention strategies to reduce COVID-19 disease risk for students, teachers, school staff, and families,” the report states. “These results can provide a baseline for monitoring trends and evaluating mitigation strategies.”

The report also says this: “As education resumes and some schools begin in-person learning for the 2020–21 academic year, it is critical to have a baseline for monitoring trends in COVID-19 infection among school-aged children.”

These findings raise a big question: Why does this age difference exist?

There are likely several reasons behind it, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. One is the behavior of older children. “The virus is everywhere,” he says. “It’s just that adolescents have more social contacts and more activities, and are more likely to come into contact with it than maybe a kindergartener would be.”

While it’s possible that teens are getting infected with the virus at higher rates than younger children, it’s also likely that younger children just aren’t being tested as much, Adalja says. Most children who are infected with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and that changes as kids get older, Adalja says. “As you get older, you are more likely to have symptoms,” he says. That can influence who is tested and ends up with a confirmed case of the virus.

Even if a younger child has a suspected case of the virus, Adalja says they’re often less likely to be tested, simply because it’s difficult to get them to cooperate. “It’s hard enough to look in their ear, let alone put something up their nose,” he says.

What the data doesn’t suggest so far is that there is anything different about the immune system of teens that makes them more likely to contract COVID-19, Dr. John Schreiber, interim chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “We don’t have any data showing that the immunology of a 12-year-old is different from an 8-year-old that causes them to be more susceptible,” he says.

“There’s some data to suggest that these younger children may — and that's the operative word here — be somewhat less likely to get infected," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life. “But I don't think the final word is out for sure in terms of whether these children are infected differently or not.”

A lot of this is just speculation at this point, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “There are a lot of interesting theories, but I think time will tell,” she says.

This naturally raises a question about in-person classes reopening, and Adalja says it’s unclear at this point how the latest data factors in — but that may change. “We have the opportunity with schools being opened to look at the data and see what’s going on in schools,” he says. “It’s hard to fold all the data together, especially when there’s a new study coming out, seemingly every day.”

A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in August that analyzed nasopharyngeal swabs in COVID-19 patients found that children younger than age 5 hosted up to 100 times as much of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in their upper respiratory tract as adults. There were no differences in the amount of the virus in the nasal passage between children age 5 to 17 and adults. That suggested young children had the potential to spread the virus.

Previous research published in Emerging Infectious Diseases also found that kids between the age of 10 and 19 were just as likely to spread COVID-19 as adults. And if these children are also more likely to be infected, it could increase the risk of spread, Schreiber says.

Fisher says the latest data, combined with previously existing research, implies that school officials “probably need to be a little more cautious with reopening middle and high schools.”

“We want to do it in such a way that we don’t have to open up and shut down — we don’t want that yo-yo,” she says.

Overall, though, Schreiber says the latest findings confirm that children are susceptible to COVID-19 too. “There is this myth that children don’t get infected, but the reality is that 277,285 kids have gotten infected,” he says. “This is also a disease of children, and they can spread it. We can’t use wishful thinking as a way to manage the pandemic.”

“At the end of the day, the data still shows children can be infected,” Russo says. “No one is protected from this virus. Even though they may have a relative degree of protection compared to older children, they still can be infected, they still can transmit the disease, and we need to make every effort to protect them.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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