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Children now account for more than 20% of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia

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Mountain View Elementary School kindergarten students work at their desks Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, the first day they returned for in-person learning.

Even as Virginia reports a gradual decline in COVID-19 cases, the virus is continuing to infect children at much higher rates than it was last summer, according to a new dashboard from the Virginia Department of Health.

The data, released Monday, comes amid continuing debate over the risk of COVID-19 to children and the prospect of an approved vaccine for patients under the age of 12. In a news release, VDH said it released the dashboard “because of the increase in COVID-19 cases among children across the state since the end of the summer.”

Since July, multiple outbreaks have been linked to day camps and child care facilities. There are also currently more than 50 “outbreaks in progress” at public and private K-12 schools across the state, though many have resulted in fewer than 10 cases,

In total, nearly 130,000 children 17 and younger have contracted the virus since March 2020, when the department first began collecting data. That includes more than 3,300 children who were infected in the last two weeks. Just 380 of those cases — 0.29% — have resulted in hospitalization, and nine children have died, including five 9 and younger, according to department data.

What’s clear from the data is that spikes of infection among children track closely with spikes among the general population. The largest increase in cases came last January, as Virginia overall was experiencing a record-breaking holiday surge, and through mid-September, when the state was grappling with another wave driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant. Cases were actually highest among children this fall — especially among 5- to 11-year-olds, who are currently not eligible for the vaccine.

The same age group now accounts for just over 10% of all new infections, compared with less than 3% at the start of the pandemic. And children overall, from infancy to 17, now account for nearly 23% of all cases — a marked increase from the start of the pandemic, when they accounted for less than 3%. 

So far, VDH hasn’t released more granular data on outbreaks among children, including how the number of cases compares between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups. It’s also not clear whether children hospitalized for the disease — or those who died — had underlying health conditions that could have made them more vulnerable to the virus.

But the data is a stark indicator of how Delta has spurred the growth of cases among children. There’s no evidence that the variant contributes to more severe disease. With much higher transmissibility, though, it easily spreads among close contacts, particularly in school-aged groups who aren’t currently eligible for the vaccine.

A recent study by Harvard researchers also suggests that children are just as capable of carrying — and spreading — the disease. That’s spurred recommendations and calls, both in Virginia and across the country, to require COVID-19 vaccines in schools.

“While children under 12 years are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, VDH recommends that everyone 12 years and older be fully vaccinated to help protect against COVID-19,” the department said in a statement. “Widespread vaccination of eligible Virginians can protect all children, especially those who are still too young to be vaccinated.”

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