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I learned this week that kids in my child’s elementary school are coughing on classmates to be funny. That’s what kids do — at least those who haven’t been told how serious catching a respiratory illness can be this year. Not only could they pass along COVID-19, but they also risk passing along the many other viruses that are circulating. This could have damaging ripple effects in our community right now.
Kids’ misreading of risk is just one reason that masks should be required in schools across Colorado this fall. Pediatric cases of COVID-19 are rising across the U.S., and although Colorado has not reached the dire situation of states like Florida, Louisiana and Texas yet, mask requirements are one way to help us avoid the tragedy unfolding elsewhere.
Many current school district policies are based on outdated facts about prior variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. There is emerging evidence that the delta variant is different, and stronger protections are needed.
First, delta is 3 to 4 times more contagious than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. While the original virus was about as contagious as the flu — with one infected person likely to infect 2 to 3 others — each person infected with the delta variant may infect as many as 6 to 8 others. This makes it one of the most contagious viruses known to humans (just below chickenpox, measles and mumps — all of which we now vaccinate against).
Second, delta’s viral load may be 1,000 times higher than seen before. Furthermore, the virus replicates more quickly and may last longer. In short, people (including children) who become infected have more virus in their systems and can spread the virus more easily and earlier than we saw with prior versions of the virus.
Third, and very importantly, children’s vulnerability to the delta variant may be higher relative to prior variants of the virus, with significantly more cases being reported and exponential case growth in recent weeks. Since vaccines are not yet approved for children under 12, and vaccination rates among 12- to 18-year-olds are quite low across the U.S., the potential for higher susceptibility of children is quite concerning. Children’s hospitals in many states, including Louisiana, Nebraska, and Texas, are among those sounding alarms about reaching capacity — meaning that they are no longer able to meet the urgent needs of seriously ill babies and children in their communities. For this reason, pediatricians in Colorado have expressed alarm about our refusal to take preventive actions to keep us from reaching a similar crisis.
Some say COVID-19 is not a concern for kids — that the illness is usually just a mild cold and not worth making kids endure the discomfort of wearing masks. Unfortunately, this belief does not match the evidence.
While delta’s ability to cause severe illness among children is likely still low — though not as low as with prior variants — rates of long-haul COVID seem to be somewhere between 4% to 20% of pediatric cases. Long COVID can cause lasting cardiac and respiratory symptoms, which can compromise children’s learning and participation in sports and other extracurriculars.
A final concern is that infected kids, even those who are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, can spread the virus to teachers and bring the illness home to their families. Grandparents, younger siblings, and unvaccinated adults are most at risk, but even vaccinated adults seem to be more vulnerable to delta. In fact, although mRNA vaccines, like those by Pfizer and Moderna, have been about 95% effective in protecting individuals from prior versions of the virus, they may be only 42% to 78% effective against delta infections. This means that a layered approach of vaccinations plus other protections is needed.
When kids get sick, they have to miss school, which means parents often must miss work. When enough kids or teachers are sick, classrooms or schools go into quarantine. This is already occurring in places like Mississippi, where one school district has 40% of students in quarantine after one week in school. Setting health concerns aside, this is extremely disruptive for children, households and employers.
There are bigger concerns, of course: When the virus is allowed to circulate widely, more mutations are likely and may indeed result in even more deadly or more contagious disease down the road. But for those who are not swayed by these broader concerns, the worry about illness and loss of income for households should be a concern.
Given the mounting evidence about the new dangers of the delta variant, I’m shocked and concerned about Gov. Jared Polis’ refusal to implement protocols to keep our children safe. School districts around the state are likewise failing our children by bending to the will of a vocal few who refuse to acknowledge the increasing risk to kids’ health and our state’s economy. We need protective measures like mandatory masks and vaccinations implemented in schools across Colorado now, before we reach a crisis here.
Editor’s note: Jennifer C. Greenfield, Ph.D, MSW, is an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.This column first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.