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Parents ask how to handle conflicting studies on how COVID-19 impacts children

Posted at 10:58 PM, Aug 20, 2020

WEST JORDAN, Utah — Over the past few months, as students across Utah have gotten ready to go back to school, there has been a dizzying amount of new information about the way COVID-19 might affect children in a different way than adults.

Despite plenty of research, there are still conflicting reports creating arguments online and at school board meetings.

"Yeah, the conflicting studies are really hard because you really don’t know what to believe!" said mother Kiersten Downey.

Downey has more insight than most. She was diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this summer.
Thankfully the symptoms were mild.

"I was really fatigued and had a headache," Downey said.

Downey's 10-year-old son, Ryder, is getting ready to start fifth grade at Jordan Hills Elementary School on Tuesday. The last few months have been difficult for Ryder, watching family members get sick and having to finish the fourth grade online.

"(School being canceled) was tough for me. I cried a few times, and it was just rough," he said. "My mom just laid in bed all day, and we just did whatever we could to entertain ourselves... It was scary when I found out about it, but then it was okay after she didn’t have the virus anymore and we were all okay."

When FOX 13 asked Ryder if he contracted the virus, he hesitated.

"Uh... no," he said. "I don't think so."

Downey said she isn't sure, especially after reading reports indicating children can sometimes experience fewer symptoms or are asymptomatic.

Now she's mostly concerned with her son's mental health.

"To watch him just not be him? It was really really hard," Downey cried. "I watched him go from this vibrant boy who was involved in everything, and loving life, to struggling and coming in in the middle of the night full-on shaking with an anxiety attack."

Dr. Neal Davis, a pediatrician at Intermountain Primary Children's Hospital, acknowledged that the amount of conflicting information about COVID-19 can make things more stressful. He is urging people to read multiple studies from different sources, even if the results of some studies might not align with their personal beliefs.

"Some children thankfully don’t tend to have as severe of symptoms," Davis said. "But it’s important to emphasize here that it’s not that children don’t get COVID-19. They can get pretty sick from it too."

Dr. Mary Tipton, a pediatrician who owns a private practice in West Jordan, has been one of the most outspoken doctors in Utah asking schools to not be "so militant" about masks in elementary schools for students under the age of 10.

"For sure (younger chidren) transmit less," Tipton said. "I'm not saying they can't transmit it to another child. They probably can... but it's not a high level of transmission."

Tipton cites early contract tracing data from Massachusetts General Hospital which indicated schools did not appear to have played a major role in COVID-19 transmission.

"We don't know what the exact rate is," Tipton said. "We don't have prospective trials to prove it... If you went and infected 20 kids (and released them into the world), that would be the best data for transmission. Obviously nobody is going to do that."

Davis said he believes it's too early to say whether children spread the virus any differently than adults.

"I have seen studies that go back and forth on that question," Davis said. "In terms of the ability to spread, that is generally more of a behavioral phenomenon."

Davis also said it's unclear why some children seem to be less symptomatic after contracting COVID-19.

"There are researchers all over the world looking for that answer, and I don’t know it," Davis said.

According to Utah Department of Health data last updated on August 20, 2020...

  • there have been 212 cases of COVID-19 documented in children less than one year old. (422.6 cases / 100,000 people, 0% of the total case count)
  • there have been 3,337 cases of COVID-19 documented in children ages 1-14 years old. (457.9 cases / 100,000 people, 7% of the total case count)
  • there have been 10,986 cases of COVID-19 documented in people ages 15-24 years old. (2154.6 cases / 100,000 people, 23% of the total case count)
COVID-19 by age (08/20/20)
COVID-19 by age (08/20/20)

Davis said, because there are asymptomatic individuals in every age group, he's not sure whether the percentages could be skewed inaccurately.

"This is in some ways an unknowable question," Davis said. "We know that there are going to be some people with lower symptoms, or asymptomatic, that have not been tested. There are enough studies that are out that we know that’s the case. Exactly how that breaks down by age, I don’t know."

Although conflicting reports can be unclear, Davis said some evidence "is so compelling and clear" it shouldn't be disputed by anyone.

Washing hands, social distancing, and wearing a mask are still considered the best ways to stop the spread.

"There were some challenges in the way that (mask) message got sent out very early in the outbreak, and I don’t blame people for that," Davis said. "I don’t want to blame people who may have come to a different view. I can honestly see how they may have gotten there, but at this point the evidence is very clear."

"I think it's essential for teens, middle school, and high school. It works. Masks work," Tipton said. "I'm not anti-mask."

"I do believe that (masks) can slow the spread," Downey agreed. "But they do contribute to this sense of fear... Everybody has to do what works for their family, and there’s not a right answer."

Although Ryder said wearing a mask can be "annoying sometimes," he's happy to put one on if that means finally getting to see his friends at school.

"I think school's going to be a little bit different, but we’re going back to school, so yeah I’m happy!" Ryder said.
Davis recommended leaning on trusted organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for advice.

He also urged people to contact their doctors to create an individualized plan that can protect themselves and others.

"As a doctor, I actually don’t mind. I love when (patients) bring in information and say, 'Let’s have a conversation about something that I found,'" Davis said. "I would love to emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine this season... Influenza outbreak could be paired with the COVID pandemic."

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