COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 is spreading in kids. Should parents be worried?

The highly contagious strain of COVID-19 known as B.1.1.7 is now in all 50 states — and data suggest it may affect kids more than people realize.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recently told Boston 25 News that B.1.1.7 has made him rethink his stance on reopening schools for in-person learning. “It’s a totally different virus in the sense of what it’s doing epidemiologically,” he said. “I think school openings today are going to greatly enhance transmission of B.1.1.7 in our communities, and I predict that within weeks we will be revisiting this issue, unfortunately, after we’ve had substantial transmission.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists B.1.1.7 as a “variant of concern,” meaning that researchers are keeping a close eye on it. The variant seems to easily and rapidly spread, and it may cause a greater risk of death than previous variants.

A research article published in the journal Science found that children are more likely to be infected with B.1.1.7 than other variants of concern. (Getty Images)
A research article published in the journal Science found that children are more likely to be infected with B.1.1.7 than other variants of concern. (Getty Images)

According to CDC data, B.1.1.7 is now the most widely circulating variant in the United States, making up 32 percent of cases in the country.

Other data has suggested the variant is more likely to infect children. A report published in the British Medical Journal found that more than 50,000 Israeli children tested positive for the virus in January, which was more than any month during the country’s first and second waves of the virus. In Italy, 10 percent of the village of Corzano tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 3 — and 60 percent of those were infants and elementary-school-age children, who then passed the virus on to adults.

A research article published in the journal Science also found that children are more likely to be infected with B.1.1.7 than other variants of concern.

But what does this mean for children in the U.S.?

It’s hard to say for sure, Dr. Juan Salazar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children's, tells Yahoo Life. “B.1.1.7 is more contagious, and lately there’s been greater contact between kids than there was six months to a year ago,” he says. “With that, there’s a greater risk of spread.”

In Michigan, which is currently experiencing a huge surge in cases — including those due to B.1.1.7 — COVID-19 cases among kids ages 10 to 19 in the state rose by 133 percent last week compared with the four weeks prior, according to the Detroit News.

"There are signals that children may spread the U.K. variant of COVID more readily than they spread the initial strain," Dr. Lewis Nelson, professor and chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and chief of service in the emergency department at University Hospital, tells Yahoo Life. "This would mean that, without proper precautions, they may bring the variant strain home or spread it to others in other venues. This is a particular concern to many given the return to the classroom along with the reduction is social distancing under the right circumstances recommended by the CDC. The disease in children still appears to be mild, but it is not without a small risk of severe effects."

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that children are more likely to get B.1.1.7 in the U.S. right now simply because it’s the dominant strain circulating. “If children are getting infected, and B.1.1.7 is around, then they’re going to get B.1.1.7,” he says.

But Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that there may be something different about the way the strain affects kids. The rise in B.1.1.7 cases in kids "might be related to better binding in children's lung epithelial cells vs. other strains," he says. (Epithelial cells provide a protective barrier in the lungs and help start immune responses to viruses and other illnesses.)

As for whether B.1.1.7 is more dangerous for children, it’s difficult to say for sure at this point, Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "Kids may be getting B.1.1.7, but that doesn't mean they're getting more sick from it," he says. Salazar agrees. However, he points out: “When more kids are infected, there is a greater risk that more can end up in the hospital.”

Still, Salazar adds, he hasn’t seen an uptick in severe cases in children due to B.1.1.7 in his medical center. “This virus has impacted children since the pandemic started, but I haven’t seen increases in kids coming through the ICU because of B.1.1.7,” he says.

As for Nelson, he believes B.1.1.7 may just be "more transmissible, and children have simply been a relatively protected host up until this point and thus able to serve as a bigger reservoir."

Overall, experts urge parents to be diligent about keeping their kids safe. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in a press briefing on Monday that young people are fueling COVID-19 cases across the country due to school reopenings and youth sports. "We are learning that many outbreaks in young people are related to youth sports and extracurricular activities. According to CDC guidance, these activities should be limited," she said.

“We worry about schools having outbreaks tied to extracurricular activities," Adalja says. "We have to be much more careful with extracurriculars.”

Watkins urges parents to continue to practice good COVID-19 safety protocols for themselves and their families, like mask-wearing, social distancing and careful hand hygiene. "It's easy to let our guard down with vaccination getting more widespread, but, obviously, kids can't get vaccines right now," he says.

Salazar agrees that it's important for families to continue to be diligent about COVID-19 prevention. “If we can do that and continue with vaccinations, hopefully, we will have a quieter summer,” he says.

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