Study: Asymptomatic Kids Carry Higher COVID Viral Load Than Adults In ICU

by Christina Marfice
Asymptomatic Kids Carry Higher COVID Viral Load Than Adults In ICU

A new study provides more bad news about how kids can carry and spread the virus as more schools across the U.S. open

Since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have been racing to study how the virus affects kids, and what role they might play in spreading the disease to others. Now, as more and more schools are attempting to open for in-person classes across the U.S., a new study shows some pretty damning results: Scientists found that kids who were asymptomatic or had very mild symptoms can sometimes carry even higher viral loads than the sickest adults, including those in the ICU.

The research out of Massachusetts General Hospital and MassGeneral Hospital for Children reports that of 192 children enrolled in the study, around a quarter tested positive for COVID-19. Some were asymptomatic, some had mild symptoms, some were hospitalized for the virus symptoms, and some were hospitalized with the COVID-related inflammatory illness that has affected some children.

“What surprised us the most was that children carried very high viral loads in their airway secretions,” said Lael Yonker, lead author of the study and director of the hospital’s Cystic Fibrosis Center. “Loads that were higher than adults who are hospitalized for their severe COVID illness.”

What makes that so scary is that with respiratory illnesses, a higher viral load means the infected person is more likely to pass the illness on to others, because they’re more likely to expel respiratory droplets that contain the virus.

The study also looked at temperature and symptom checks, safety measures that are being employed in many reopening schools, and found that they’re not reliable ways to detect the virus, especially in kids. Researchers involved with the new study found that only about half of kids who tested positive for COVID-19 actually ever had a fever — and that 50 percent of children who tested negative had a fever at some point during the study that wasn’t related to COVID-19. Typical allergy and cold symptoms were reported equally by kids who tested positive, and kids who tested negative.

This is not the first study to point out the viral loads of COVID that kids are being found to carry. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month pointed to similar findings, concluding that compared to adults and older children, kids under age 5 with mild to moderate COVID-19 cases have higher levels of genetic material for the virus in the nose.

According to the authors of the study, this new research shows two things: That children are absolutely not immune to COVID-19, like Donald Trump has said, and that their role in community spread of the virus may be even greater than scientists have feared.

“The policymakers, the people who were setting up the rules for how schools will safely be started need to take this into consideration,” Yonker said. “And they need to consider enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing, taking advantage of remote learning when possible — pretty simple measures that can be done to make reentry into schools safer.”