In Kids, The Risk Of COVID-19 And The Flu Are Similar — But The Risk Perception Isn't

May 21, 2021
Originally published on May 21, 2021 5:41 pm
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The CDC's new mask recommendations have left some parents concerned about kids too young to be vaccinated. Is it safe to take them to the store? Will a maskless person spread the coronavirus to a vaccinated parent who could then give it to a child? And if so, what's that risk? Well, as NPR's Richard Harris reports, the risk to children turns out to be extremely low compared to the flu.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a strong statement about the effectiveness of vaccines when it decided that fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most circumstances. Dr. Paul Offit, who runs the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says that's mostly good news.

PAUL OFFIT: But I think that has made this world a little less safe for young children.

HARRIS: Even a vaccinated parent can occasionally get infected with the coronavirus. There's also a small risk that the virus can pass to an unvaccinated child, and that child has an extremely small risk of getting seriously ill. To date, out of more than 74 million children in the United States, there have been about 300 COVID deaths and a few thousand serious illnesses. Hospitalization numbers look worse, but Dr. Roshni Mathew at Stanford's Children's Hospital says those numbers are inflated.

ROSHNI MATHEW: All hospitals, as the child walks into the hospital for admission, get swabbed for COVID.

HARRIS: But in her hospital's experience, nearly half of those children with positive COVID tests were not actually sick with COVID.

MATHEW: So it was a completely unrelated diagnosis, like appendicitis or femur fracture or something else.

HARRIS: In children, at least, the risk of serious consequences for COVID is about the same as the risk they face from the flu, she says. But many parents seem more worried about the new and less familiar disease. That anxiety is heightened with new guidelines around mask-wearing. Gretchen Chapman studies health conundrums like this at Carnegie Mellon University.

GRETCHEN CHAPMAN: If you stop going into stores because you're terrified that you'll run into an unmasked person, that's probably overreacting.

HARRIS: It's understandable why parents would feel that way, she says. Though these risks are very low, they are not zero, and people struggle to conceptualize the difference between small risks - say, something that's one in a thousand versus one in a million.

CHAPMAN: Preventive measures that reduce a small risk even substantially but not completely can be underweighted because if your risk goes from one in a thousand to one in a million, it doesn't really seem that much different to the person.

HARRIS: But it's also a matter of perspective. A tiny risk has a small impact on the population as a whole, but parents understandably aren't thinking in terms of the population as a whole.

CHAPMAN: When you're a parent and you're thinking about your one or two kids, it's really all or nothing. And, of course, the probability is really, really low of that very bad event, but it's not zero.

HARRIS: The risk is continuing to go down, however, as COVID rates fall, and soon this whole question will be turned on its head. The challenge will be not to reassure parents about very low risks, but to convince them that when vaccines are available for young children, it's worth reducing the risk of COVID even further. Again, here's Dr. Mathew from Stanford.

MATHEW: It becomes a vaccine-preventable infection, and so then you would take every opportunity to prevent every single pediatric death if possible.

HARRIS: Right now, only about two-thirds of children end up being vaccinated for the flu, and health officials are likely to confront a similar challenge for COVID. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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