Israeli study says children carry virus, infect others, but at a lower rate

Epidemiological report released by Health Ministry says kids 20-50% less likely to get infected, depending on age; infants more vulnerable and contagious

Children wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Children wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Health Ministry on Thursday released an epidemiological study that will be used to determine whether daycares, kindergartens and schools are given the final go ahead to open on Friday.

The study found that children can carry and transmit the disease, but at a lower rate than adults. The authors emphasized that the findings were preliminary.

The study  tracked the spread of the virus in 562 households with 2,823 total people in Bnei Brak, over half of whom were under the age of 20. Bnei Brak saw a severe outbreak of the disease last month.

Children in households with at least one family member who had the virus were 20-50 percent less likely to get infected than adults, with younger children less likely to contract the disease than older ones, the report said.

Children were 20%-75% less likely than adults to infect others. The chances of transmission rise with age, though those under a year can also be highly contagious, the report said.

Infants were more susceptible to infection than other children, possibly due to closer contact with parents or breastfeeding while their mothers were infected, the report said.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy receives a COVID-19 test in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“We recommend that decision-makers act with an abundance of caution and only open schools and return students gradually,” the authors wrote.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Gertner Research Institute at Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv.

The authors suggested having a system in place to closely monitor schools, including taking steps if infections are found among students, and comprehensive randomized testing.

On Friday at 10 a.m. the study will be presented to government ministers, who will decide if schools will open on Sunday.

Officials in the Health Ministry on Thursday evening were pushing to postpone the reopening of kindergartens and preschools until later in May.

In a briefing with reporters, a senior Health Ministry official said kindergartens should not reopen for another week or two, but elementary schools up to third grade can begin bringing back students on Sunday.

“We’ve seen great results on the national infection map, and we can take this step and wait with kindergartens until the next round, when our [national] health will be a week or two along. The group that is safest to start with are first- to third-graders,” the official said.

Officials fear that young children will be unable to maintain necessary social distancing or hygiene standards, and keeping groups of 15 kids separate from each other, as ordered, will be difficult.

According to the Education Ministry’s plan — released earlier this week — for the resumption of studies on Sunday amid the pandemic, children in first through third grades would return to school five days a week, for five hours a day, with classes capped at 15 students.

Kindergartens and preschools would also reopen, but only for three days per week, with a limited number of children permitted at a time.

Workers clean a classroom at Luba Eliav primary school in Rishon Lezion, April 30, 2020. (Flash90)

Ministers will meet Friday to make a final decision on what schools will reopen next week, and will likely favor the Health Ministry’s recommendation over those of the Education Ministry.

The country’s first patient under 19 to suffer serious complications from the virus, an 11-year-old girl, is currently hospitalized at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.

To date, children have been among the least affected group by the coronavirus. Data from more than 75,000 cases in China showed they comprised 2.4% of all cases and mostly suffered only mild symptoms.

The World Health Organization said it was attempting to gather more information on any new, coronavirus-related syndrome in children from its global network of doctors but had not received any official reports about it.

Israeli medical professionals are closely following international research into children and the coronavirus. For example, The New South Wales Health Center for Immunization Research conducted a study on children, and concluded they are unlikely to transmit COVID-19 between each other or to adults. In New South Wales, Australia, a decision to reopen schools was said to have been influenced by that theory.

Doctors in Britain, Italy, and Spain were warned this week to look out for a rare inflammatory condition in children that is possibly linked to the new coronavirus.

A study published this month in the US journal Clinical Infectious Diseases ascertained that a child in France, who only displayed mild symptoms, came into contact with 172 people while sick. All of those were placed in quarantine as a precaution, but none of them contracted COVID-19, not even the child’s two siblings.

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