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Health and Medicine

California Has Reported The First Teen Death From COVID-19. Here’s What Parents Need To Know

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NIAID-RML Flickr
This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (green) cultured in the lab.

On Friday, California health officials announced the first COVID-19 death of a person under 18.

The teen was treated at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera. The California Department of Public Health said this person was between ages 12 and 17 and had underlying conditions, but would not release further information due to patient confidentiality.

Dr. Karen Dahl, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the Central Valley-based hospital, said this is a reminder that kids are not immune.

“Children can be seriously affected, and children may die from this,” she said. “We know that children are not as likely to have severe disease, they’re not in the same high-risk category. But that doesn’t mean it spares children completely.”

People under age 18 make up roughly 9% of COVID-19 cases in California, while people age 18 to 34 make up 35% of cases.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, says public health officials have traced the infection rate among young adults to social gatherings with friends.

“With the lifting of restrictions, we’ve had increased mobility and less social distancing,” he said. “And young people of course may feel less vulnerable to the severity of the disease compared to older individuals, so they’ve been out and about more.”

But the gatherings among younger children also pose a risk, experts warn.

In late June, an outbreak at a Georgia summer camp sickened more than three quarters of campers and teenage staffers who were tested. In a new report, researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health said the incident demonstrates that children are susceptible to the virus and that they may play an important role in community transmission. That runs “contrary to early reports” about the younger population, according to the study.

Here are some basics when it comes to coronavirus and kids.

Young Children Are Less Susceptible

Recent research shows that people under age 20 are about half as likely as adults to get infected when they’re exposed to COVID-19, and that the risk of infection is even lower for children under age 10. Scientists do not currently know why young children are less susceptible.

Even when young children become infected, experts say they rarely have serious symptoms and are less likely to pass the virus on through coughing. One study of epidemic data from China, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Canada and South Korea estimates that symptoms appear in 21% of infections in 10- to 19-year-olds.

Blumberg says how quickly the virus spreads among groups of children depends on how well they wash their hands, stay apart and wear masks.

“For children older than 10, and probably older than 5, we can rely on them to follow directions,” he said. “Whereas the youngest children may not be as reliable and may forget some instructions. So I think it’s reassuring to know even if they’re not following those directions or not able to mask appropriately, that they still have a decreased risk of getting infected, and also a decreased risk of transmitting to others.”

The CDC does not recommend masks for children under two years of age.

Dr. Karen Dahl, of Valley Children’s Hospital, said parents have a lot of risks to weigh when deciding whether to place their children in school or daycare.

“Once community transmission is in a better state and we’re at a lower risk in general, and schools are able to comply with safety measures, [that] would be the time to think about sending our kids back,” she said.

For now, she reminds parents that even playdates pose a threat.

“Every time I walk by a playground and see a bunch of kids playing ... it used to make me happy, but now it makes me worried.”

Underlying Conditions Put Some Kids At Higher Risk

Dahl said a major concern during COVID-19 is children who she describes as “medically complex” — young people who live with cancer, congenital heart disease or a slew of other conditions that require multiple specialists.

There’s also a link between COVID-19 complications and the much more common ailment of childhood obesity.

Blumberg, of UC Davis, noted that a child’s living environment, race and access to regular medical care can affect their risk of both contracting the virus and suffering complications.

“Racial and ethnic minorities tend to live in more crowded conditions, and that’s going to lead to a higher concentration of viral exposure,” he said, adding that this is just one reason communities of color may be more vulnerable to severe infection.

“Many ethnic and racial minorities have higher rates of underlying conditions, and in addition to that, they may lack access to care to take care of those underlying conditions,” Blumberg said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that secondhand smoke can negatively impact children’s lung health and make it harder for them to fight off COVID-19 infections. It recommends parents try to keep a smoke-free home, especially when their children are in the house all day and not going to school.

Vaping can also cause lung damage that can put teens at higher risk for complications from COVID-19.

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