Kids more likely to catch COVID-19 than adults, Health Ministry finds

Study presented to ministers shows percentage of positive tests among children stands at 8%, a full 2% higher than with adults; indicates re-opening schools led to infection spike

First grade students arrive for their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
First grade students arrive for their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Children are more likely to contract the coronavirus than adults and can pass it on to others, a major Health Ministry study published Wednesday found, upending claims that had shown young people less likely to catch or spread the disease.

The ministry therefore warned that sending children back to schools at a time of high COVID-19 morbidity “may accelerate the spread of the virus.”

Israel is gradually easing a month-long lockdown, its second in the battle against the pandemic, with kindergartens and pre-schools reopened last week. It quickly reopened schools when emerging from its first lockdown in late May, partly on the basis of data indicating that children were relatively unlikely to catch or spread the virus, but subsequently faced a relentless rise in contagion rates.

Eight percent of the 678,000 COVID-19 tests conducted on children under age 17 between January 27 to September 24 came back positive, according to the study. This was 2% higher than the rate from some 2.6 million tests conducted on adults during that same period.

Serological tests, which look for antibodies to determine if someone ever had the virus, were even starker, showing a 7.1% positive rate among children, compared to a 1.7%-4.8% rate among adults from June 28 to September 14.

The results emphasized the risk posed by reopening schools in a non-gradual fashion, particularly in areas with high infection rates as was done in certain Haredi communities across the country this week.

The Israeli study stands at odds with some widely circulated international assessments. The World Health Organization noted last month that the role of children in transmission of COVID-19 “is not yet fully understood.” It added, however, “To date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported” and “the small number of outbreaks reported among teaching or associated staff to date suggests that spread of COVID-19 within educational settings may be limited.”

Other research, however, has questioned initial assessments that children are significantly less prone than adults to drive COVID-19 contagion.

Reacting to the Health Ministry report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly expressed surprise that health experts signed off on opening kindergartens and preschools last week. First grade and up are still shut down in adherence to government health guidelines, but ultra-Orthodox leaders have ordered Talmud Torah elementary schools to resume classes, despite high infection rates in the community.

“Children are definitely contracting the virus and contagious as well. Since most of them do not show symptoms, it is difficult to identify a significant proportion of them who carry the virus and they may be a source of infection for others,” the Health Ministry report states.

An empty classroom in Jerusalem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It added that the return of children to schools, “especially at a time of widespread morbidity, may accelerate the spread of the virus, both throughout different age groups and throughout different geographical areas.”

The report recommended a “gradual” reopening of the education system based on the level of morbidity in different age groups and different geographical areas.

In the serological testing, children who were able to determine who they contracted the virus from reported that they had been infected by an adult 80% of the time, while the remaining 20% said they had caught COVID from a fellow child.

Children and teachers at the Gan Nayot kindergarten in Jerusalem as they return to school on May 10, 2020, for the first time in over 2 months. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Nonetheless, the report determines that children can act as “super-spreaders” given that 51% to 70% of them do not show symptoms of the virus. In 17 cases tracked by the Health Ministry, children managed to infect over 10 of their peers.

The findings also directly contradict the assertion made by Education Minister Yoav Gallant in recent months that children have not been the source of the virus spread and that schools should therefore be allowed to reopen.

Ministers on Wednesday were discussing the possibility of reopening elementary schools nationwide at the end of the month, though the Health Ministry has demanded a slow, careful approach.

A swift reopening of schools at the end of the first lockdown in May was backed by a scientific report which showed that school-age children were the least likely to catch or pass on the virus.

That opening has been blamed for contributing to the rebound of the pandemic, and the report released Wednesday showed a significant increase in infection rates both among children and adults following the reopening of schools on September 1.

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