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Utah Study Finds Children Bring COVID-19 Home From Child Care Centers

La-Rel Easter

Researchers recently investigated three outbreaks of COVID-19 at child care centers in Salt Lake City. Their findings are helping to fill a knowledge gap on how younger children might spread the virus.

Two of the outbreaks started after staff came to work while their sick relatives were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms at home. In the third outbreak, it’s unclear who brought it in, but in the end children in that particular outbreak seemed to have passed the virus to at least five people at home, including a parent who had to be hospitalized.

All in all, the infected children passed the virus to one in four of their close contacts at home. Many of those children had mild symptoms or none at all.

“I think that’s the key. They are transmitting it to people when they’re asymptomatic,” said Mary Hill, an epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County health department and an author of the study, published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I think it was a little shocking at first when we saw how many people were asymptomatic. Is it real? Is it not? Is it a problem with the test?”

But, she said, it was real, and it wasn’t due to a faulty test.

“It’s just a high number of asymptomatic people, especially in children,” said Hill.

The takeaway: If a COVID-19 case pops up in a child care setting, kids who spent time with that person should be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms. Plus kids 2 years and older should wear masks.

And, Hill added, at least two of the outbreaks in the study -- and many others she’s investigated -- might have been avoided with improved paid leave policies for childcare workers.

“Give them paid leave,” said Hill. “Because they can’t help this. It’s not like they’ve done anything wrong. And if they’re not going to get paid leave, people are going to do what they have to to get to work, to make ends meet.”

Twelve children picked up the virus at the child care centers, then spread it to at least 12 others, including parents and siblings. An 8-month-old baby gave it to both parents.

As the study authors wrote, if a COVID-19 case pops up in a child care setting, children who came in contact with the person should be tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.

They also reiterate the recommendation that children aged 2 years and older wear masks. The child care center that experienced the biggest outbreak also had the most staff and children. It was also the only one of the centers that didn’t require staff to wear masks.

Several studies have begun to elucidate the role of children in transmission. That includes:

  • A large study out of South Korea showing that children under age 10 do transmit the virus, though less often than older kids and adults.
  • A study on an overnight summer camp in Georgia found that COVID-19 “spread efficiently” among campers and staff. Among campers aged 6 to 10 years who were tested, more than half were positive.
  • A studyin Rhode Island looked at 666 child care centers that were open in June and July, and found that only four of them might have helped spread the virus to the broader community, though the authors note cases likely went undetected.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the .

Copyright 2020 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
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