Pediatric COVID-19: Data to Guide Practice

William T. Basco, Jr, MD, MS


February 22, 2021

With the daily stream of new information, it is difficult to keep up with data on how the coronavirus epidemic affects children and school attendance, and how pediatricians can advise parents. The following is a summary of recently published information about birth and infant outcomes, and symptoms seen in infants and children, along with a review of recent information on transmission in schools.

COVID-19 in Newborns

In November 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published data from 16 jurisdictions detailing pregnancy and infant outcomes of more than 5000 women with SARS-CoV-2 infection. The data were collected from March to October 2020. More than 80% of the women found to be positive for SARS-CoV-2 were identified during their third trimester. The surveillance found that 12.9% of infants born to infected mothers were born preterm, compared with an expected rate in the population of approximately 10%, suggesting that third-trimester infection may be associated with an increase in premature birth. Among 610 infants born to infected mothers and tested for SARS-CoV-2 during their nursery stay, 2.6% were positive. The infant positivity rate was as high as 4.3% among infants who were born to women with a documented SARS-CoV-2 infection within 2 weeks of the delivery date. No newborn infections were found among the infants whose mothers' infection occurred more than 14 days before delivery. Current CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations are to test infants born to mothers with suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Data on clinical characteristics of a series of hospitalized infants in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, was published in December 2020. The study identified infants 0-12 months old who were diagnosed or treated at a single Montreal hospital from February until May 2020. In all, 25 (2.0%) of 1165 infants were confirmed to have SARS-CoV-2, and approximately eight of those were hospitalized; 85% had gastrointestinal symptoms and 81% had a fever. Upper respiratory tract symptoms were present in 59%, and none of the hospitalized infants required supplemental oxygen. The data overall support the idea that infants are generally only mildly symptomatic when infected, and respiratory symptoms do not appear to be the most prevalent finding.

COVID-19 in Children

The lack of prominent respiratory symptoms among children with SARS-CoV-2 infection symptoms was echoed in another study that evaluated more than 2400 children in Alberta, Canada. Among the 1987 children who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, one third (35.9%) were asymptomatic. Some symptoms were not helpful in differentiating children who tested positive vs those who tested negative. The frequency of muscle or joint pain, myalgia, malaise, and respiratory symptoms such as nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, and sore throat was indistinguishable between the SARS-CoV-2–infected and –noninfected children. However, anosmia was much more prevalent (7.7%) among those who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, compared with 1.1% of those who were negative. Headache was present in 15.7% of those who were positive vs 6.3% of those who were negative. Fever was slightly more prevalent, at 25.5% among the positive patients and 15% of the negative patients.

The authors calculated likelihood ratios for individual symptoms and found that almost all individual symptoms had likelihood ratios of 1 to 1.8 for testing positive. However, nausea and vomiting had a likelihood ratio of 5.5, and for anosmia it was 7.3. The combination of symptoms of nausea, nausea and vomiting, and headache produced a likelihood ratio of nearly 66. The authors suggest that these data on ambulatory children indicate that, in general, respiratory symptoms are not helpful for distinguishing patients who are likely to be positive, although the symptoms of nausea, headache, and both along with fever can be highly predictive. The authors propose that it may be more helpful for schools to focus on identifying children with combinations of these high-yield symptoms for potential testing and exclusion from school rather than on random or isolated respiratory symptoms.

COVID-19 in Schools

Transmission risk in different settings is certainly something parents quiz pediatricians about, so data released in January and February 2021 may help provide some context. A CDC report on the experience of 17 schools in Wisconsin from August to November 2020 is illuminating. In that study, the SARS-CoV-2 case rate in students and school teachers and staff members was 63% of the rate in the general public at the time, suggesting that the mitigation strategies used by the schools were effective. In addition, among the students who contracted SARS-CoV-2, only 5% of cases were attributable to school exposure. No cases of SARS-CoV-2 among faculty or staff were linked to school exposure.

Indeed, data released on February 2, 2021, demonstrate that younger adults are the largest source of sustaining the epidemic. On the basis of data from August to October 2020, the opening of schools does not appear to be associated with population-level changes in SARS-CoV-2–attributable deaths. For October 2020, the authors estimate that 2.7% of infections were from children 0-9 years old, 7.1% from those ages 10-19 years, but 34% from those 20-34 years old and 38% from those 35-49 years old, by far the largest two groups contributing to spread. It should be noted that ages 20-49 years are the peak working years for adults, but the source of the data did not allow the authors to conclude whether infections were work-related or social activity–related. Their data do suggest that prioritizing vaccination of younger working-age adults may put more of a dent in the pandemic spread than vaccinating older individuals.

In a similar vein, a systematic review and meta-analysis of recent studies looked at household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and demonstrated an attack rate within households of 16.6%. Of note, secondary household attack rates were only 0.7% from asymptomatic cases and 18% from symptomatic cases, with spouses and adult household contacts having higher secondary attack rates than children in the household.

COVID-19 in Student Athletes

A recent MMWR report described a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak associated with a series of wrestling tournaments in Florida, held in December and January 2021. While everyone would like children to be able to participate in sports, such events potentially violate several of the precepts for preventing spread: Avoid close contact and don't mix contacts from different schools. Moreover, the events occurred during some of the highest incident case rates in the counties where the tournaments took place.

On December 4, 2020, the AAP released updated guidance for athletic activities and recommended cloth face coverings for student athletes during training, in competition, while traveling, and even while waiting on the sidelines and not actively playing. Notable exceptions to the recommendation were competitive cheerleading, gymnastics, wrestling, and water sports, where the risk for entanglement from face coverings was too high or was not practical.

Taken as a whole, the evolving data continue to show that school mitigation practices can be effective in reducing the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection. In addition, SARS-CoV-2 rates among school children more closely mirror community rates and are probably more influenced by what happens outside the schools than inside the schools.

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