Coronavirus Today: Kids are not immune


Good evening. I’m Deborah Netburn, and it’s Tuesday, Sept. 29. I’m a science writer at The Times, and I’ll be on newsletter duty for the rest of this week. I’m looking forward to sharing what we’ve learned — and continue to learn — about the coronavirus that has upended all our lives. Here’s what’s happening in California and beyond.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since March, it’s that when it comes to the coronavirus, almost everything is murkier than I want it to be.

The virus kills some people and hardly affects others. I know people who have been reckless and not gotten sick, and I know others who thought they were being careful and wound up in the hospital.

Today, my colleague Melissa Healy reports on another aspect of the coronavirus that is far more gray than I’d like it to be: the question of whether, and how, the virus affects school-age children.

Since the early days of the pandemic, parents like me have clung to studies that suggest the virus mostly spares young children. In an effort to get kids back to school in person (and their parents back to work), President Trump has called children “virtually immune,” “essentially immune” and “almost immune” to the virus.

But a new report from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells a different story. The researchers found that between March 1 and Sept. 19, at least 277,285 school-age children in 38 states tested positive for the virus. A total of 3,189 children ages 5 to 17 were hospitalized, and 51 of them — including 20 kids 5 to 11 years old — died of COVID-19.

This is a very small fraction of the kids in America, and many students relegated to distance learning are suffering tremendously for a wide variety of reasons. Remote school is also keeping parents from working, causing financial havoc for many families.


But at the same time, that’s 51 American families grieving the loss of a child due to this virus. And 3,189 American families who were scared out of their minds while their son or daughter lay in a hospital bed.

A deeper dive into the numbers reveals that 55% of kids who tested positive had asthma or a chronic lung disease, and that 46% of all positive cases in school-age children occurred among Latinos.

The CDC team also found that the incidence of infections was twice as high among middle and high schoolers as it was for elementary school students. But the younger kids were not immune. The CDC researchers tallied a weekly average of 37.4 cases for every 100,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17, compared with a weekly average of 19 cases per 100,000 children ages 5 to 11.

Today, my colleague Paloma Esquivel reports that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors will allow a limited number of elementary schools to apply for waivers to reopen classrooms for students in transitional kindergarten up through second grade. Priority will be given to schools serving higher numbers of low-income families, she writes.

I expect there are readers who will be thrilled to hear this news and readers who will think it is a terrible idea.


By the numbers

California cases and deaths as of 4:43 p.m. PDT Tuesday:

More than 815,200 confirmed cases and more than 15,700 deaths.
(Schulz, Samantha)

Track the latest numbers and how they break down in California with our graphics.

See the current status of California’s reopening, county by county, with our tracker.

A map of California showing what tiers counties have been assigned based on their local levels of coronavirus risk.
The tiers to which California counties are assigned based on coronavirus risk level. These determine what can reopen.

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Across California

Since it’s a Tuesday, California’s health officials have reshuffled the state’s tiered system of what can reopen and when. If you live in Butte, Contra Costa, Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara or Yolo counties, congratulations! You have moved from Tier 1 (the purple tier) to Tier 2 (the red tier).

That means that the risk of COVID-19 spread in your county has dropped from “widespread” to “substantial.” Those who live in Amador, Calaveras and San Francisco counties have even more cause for joy. These counties have advanced from Tier 2 to Tier 3 (the orange tier), which means they have only a “moderate” risk of infection. Mazel tov!

Movement through the tiers allows counties to reopen more businesses and expand capacity of those that are already operating to a limited extent.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced that San Francisco will open restaurants Wednesday for limited, indoor dining and allow people inside places of worship as long as people are wearing masks and not singing or chanting among other restrictions. Indoor movie theaters could reopen with restrictions on Oct. 7, and outdoor playgrounds were slated to be open by mid-October.

Officials in Orange County, which recently reopened its schools, officials had hoped for a promotion to Tier 3. But a slight bump in cases has kept the county in Tier 2.

Los Angeles County remains in Tier 1. Despite that, the Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reopen outdoor operations at wineries, breweries and card rooms, a move that will take effect in one week.

L.A. County’s road to Tier 2 is being held back by one pesky number: 7.0. Essentially, that’s the maximum number of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents the county can report each day to qualify for Tier 2 status.

Since Los Angeles does a lot of testing — and therefore puts itself in a position to identify more cases than it otherwise would — state health officials adjust the county’s rate downward a little bit so it won’t be tempted to conduct fewer tests. Even with that help, however, Los Angeles averaged 7.3 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week. Not good enough.

Curious to learn more about the metrics public health officials are using to help guide their decision making? My colleague Soumya Karlamangla breaks it down for you here.


— For general safety, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (here’s a super-fun how-to video). Stop touching your face, and keep your phone clean. Practice social distancing, maintaining a six-foot radius of personal space in public. And wear a mask if you leave home. Here’s how to do it right.
— Watch for symptoms including fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and loss of taste or smell. If you’re worried you might be infected, call your doctor or urgent care clinic before going there.
— Need a COVID-19 test? Here’s how to receive a free test if you’re in L.A. County. And here’s a map of testing sites across California.
— Here’s how to care for someone with COVID-19, from monitoring their symptoms to preventing the virus’ spread.
— If your job has been affected by the pandemic, here’s how to file for unemployment.
— Here are some free resources for restaurant workers and entertainment industry professionals having trouble making ends meet.
— Advice for helping kids navigate pandemic life includes being honest about uncertainties, acknowledging their feelings and sticking to a routine. Here’s guidance from the CDC.
— In need of mental health services? Here are resources for coping during the crisis from the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health. L.A. County residents can also call (800) 854-7771 or text “LA” to 741741.
— For domestic violence victims, the pandemic can pose a “worst-case scenario,” advocates say. If you or someone you know is experiencing such abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or L.A. County’s hotline at 1-800-978-3600. Here are more ways to get help.

Around the nation and the world

Once again, some Americans are wondering if getting to herd immunity by allowing the coronavirus to spread freely through the population might be our best bet for ending the pandemic. Just last week, for instance, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) suggested that the decline in COVID-19 cases in New York City was due to herd immunity rather than public health measures like wearing masks and social distancing.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, pointed out that just 22% of people in New York City have antibodies for the virus. “If you believe 22% is herd immunity, I believe you’re alone in that,” he told the senator.

Epidemiologists say they can’t remember a time when governments thought the best way to deal with a virus was to let it run its course and not try to intervene. That strategy would likely lead to widespread illness and death, said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an expert in infectious disease and vaccines at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“It’s a terrible idea,” del Rio said. “It’s basically giving up on public health.”

Speaking of bad ideas, Times columnist Michael Hiltzik says Senate Republicans are misguided in their opposition to a $3-trillion pandemic relief bill that could avert a meltdown of state and local government budgets. Thanks to the added costs of coping with the pandemic and the collapse of revenue from the shrunken economy, cities and states are facing a combined shortfall of as much as $650 billion, according to one economist.

The fallout is already being felt in the form of state and municipal layoffs and cutbacks in public services. Since January, state and local governments have reduced payrolls by 1.1 million workers. They’ve had to make these cuts because by and large, they’re required to keep their budgets balanced. But the federal government isn’t, so its capacity to spend borrowed funds is theoretically unlimited. It just isn’t willing to, Hiltzik writes.

Walt Disney Co. is also feeling pandemic pain. Its California theme parks have been shut down since the early days of the outbreak, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., has been operating with strict capacity limits. Despite cutting expenses, slashing executive pay and suspending major projects, the Burbank-based company said Tuesday that it would lay off 28,000 domestic employees at its parks, experiences and products division.

The NFL is confronting its first potential COVID-19 crisis. The Tennessee Titans and Minnesota Vikings suspended all in-person club activities Tuesday, the league said. The Titans made the move after three of its players and five of its team personnel tested positive for the coronavirus. There have no new cases among the Vikings, but they took the action because they played host to the Titans on Sunday.

Your questions answered

Today’s question comes from Burcin Ikiz, who wants to know: Why are playgrounds still closed, and what’s the plan to reopen them?

Good news, Burcin. Just today the governor announced a new state rule that allows playgrounds to reopen with suggested guidelines. (Like every allowance from the state, whether to move forward with a reopening is up to local jurisdictions.)

Inspired by this news, I asked Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, to tell me how safe it was to bring a kid to a playground.

“Pretty safe,” he said.

In general, being outdoors is safer than being indoors, and if children on the playground wear masks, that makes it even safer, he said.

More and more studies suggest that airborne spread is the primary way that people get coronavirus, Chi said, so touching shared surfaces did not seem as big of a concern to him.

If a playground looks crowded, you might want to come back at a less busy time. And if you or your child lives with an elderly relative or someone with underlying health issues, you might want to hold off, he advised. Even though infected children tend not to get very sick, they can spread the virus to adults.

One way to increase safety is to follow standard hygiene protocols when you get home, he added. Take off your shoes and definitely wash your hands.

Our reporters covering the coronavirus outbreak want to hear from you. Email us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them. You can find more answers in our Frequently Asked Questions roundup and in our reopening tracker.

For the most up-to-date coronavirus coverage from The Times over the weekend, visit our homepage and our Health section, sign up for our breaking news alerts, and follow us on Twitter and on Instagram.