New study predicts rapid COVID-19 spread in schools without proper intervention

Nearly one out of every five COVID-19 cases reported weekly in North Carolina is connected with a child.

Last week more than 6,000 children reported testing positive for the virus. While infections are up across all age groups, 0-17 year-olds have seen a 1,176% increase since the beginning of June. Cases among North Carolinians aged 75 and older is the only age group reporting a larger increase.

The severity of COVID-19 cases in children is also on the rise. Around 40 COVID-19 patients are younger than 18 years old. While this makes up only 1% of overall COVID-19 hospitalizations, it is one of the highest levels of children hospitalized since the pandemic began.

The increase in infections and hospitalizations is concerning many as in-person classes begin across the state.

The state health department reported this week that COVID-19 clusters are increasing in childcare and K-12 settings. Around 500 cases were linked with 50 clusters in these settings on Tuesday; a 47% increase from the following week.

As schools across the state begin to operate in person, it is inevitable these infections will rise; an increase that could impact the entire community.

"The danger of infections in children is not just what might happen with the children themselves and some of those going to the hospital or worse, but really we know that children and youths bring viruses home from school," said Dr. Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University.

Swann is part of a group of researchers who recently published a new study predicting infection rates at K-12 schools.

The models found without intervention about 75% of susceptible children could become infected during the first semester.

"Even for those of us who study COVID-19. The rapid spread in school was a little bit surprising," Swann said.

The risk for infection is higher in elementary schools where many of the students are not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The study finding 315 out of 500 elementary students could catch COVID-19 if no safety measures are implemented.

"I do believe that the best way to do that is to have people in schools masked up, otherwise, I think that most schools will end up having to go to a virtual type of arrangement," Swann said.

The study showing the impact of masks and testing in schools significantly reduced the level of infection from 315 to 105 in elementary schools. At the high school level, where more students are vaccinated, the number of potential cases could decrease to as low as 38 for every 500 students with both safety measures in place.

ABC11 found a majority of central North Carolina public school districts already have mask mandates in place. The study predicts this will cut potential cases at least in half across all grade levels.

Swann said the study did not factor in quarantining or other measures like air filtration and social distancing. She said if schools implement these measures, the potential for future cases will likely drop even lower.

Even with protections, Swann advised educators and parents to be mindful of the number of new cases the first few weeks of school and be prepared to potentially shift gears.

"If they are opening unmasked, they need to be carefully watching those infections and quarantines that are resulting and do what they have to do to make sure both the children and the communities are safe and that learning is promoted," Swann said.
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