NIH chief: We don't have rigorous data about kids and Delta but let me freak you out anyway

It’s natural for average joes to hear the frightening reports of pediatric hospitals filling up and to wonder if Delta is hitting kids harder than previous strains did. If it is, the dream of full-time in-person schooling this fall will get complicated.

But there’s no hard evidence that it is. So why is the head of the federal science bureaucracy scaring the hell out of parents right before the school year begins by sharing anecdotal reports about more children suffering from Delta?

Is this guy trying to get schools closed again? His message should be “we have no reason yet to think the new variant is more virulent in children,” not “the jury’s out but let me tell you how freaked out a few of my doctor friends are.”

It seems clear that pediatricians *are* seeing more patients post-Delta. What’s not clear is whether that’s only because the variant is much more contagious. If, say, two million kids got infected by the original virus and 20 million get infected by Delta, we’d expect 10 times as many kids in hospitals even if the two strains are equally virulent. The risk of a severe case to any individual child would be the same as it was last year, when nearly all kids overcame COVID infections without a problem. In fact, if we’re going to shape our school policy around anecdotes rather than hard data, let it be noted that British experts haven’t seen freaky complications in kids in their own Delta wave:

But in the U.K., where Delta swept through the population before the variant became widespread in the United States, experts say they have not seen clear evidence that the variant is making children sicker.

“There was a wave, there were children who became unwell,” said Dr. Elizabeth Whittaker, a pediatric infectious disease and immunology specialist at Imperial College London. “But not in the kind of, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is very different, this is worrying.’”

Some experts are irritated today at another prominent example of anecdotes trumping data when it comes to setting policy for kids. That would be this terrifying NYT story about some children acquiring “long COVID,” with one teen laid up in bed for more than a month and then suffering serious cognitive problems at school once he returned. Those horror stories do happen. But how often?

Lots of scary anecdotes out there, not much data. Anthony Fauci was pressed by Hugh Hewitt this morning about why kids need to mask again for school when so many parents dislike the idea and believe the risk to their children is low. “Delta is different,” Fauci told him before uncorking some more anecdotal, observational evidence: “[W]hat we’re starting to see, Hugh, and I think it’s going to unfold even more as the weeks go by, that this virus not only is so extraordinarily transmissible, but we’re starting to see pediatric hospitals get more and more younger people and kids not only numerically, but what seems to be more severe disease.” Does Fauci know something we don’t about the “severe disease” numbers?

If not, why is he speculating knowing the panic it’s going to cause?

You want some actual data? Here’s some data via Matt Welch:

The overall positivity rate in New York City over the past 28 days, as Delta spread, was 3.15 percent. Among students in summer school, it was … 0.2 percent. That may in fact be a higher rate of infection than the original virus generated in kids but certainly it’s a rate that we should tolerate in the interest of getting everyone back to class, even if we know that certain tragic outlier cases of severe illness will happen. The one potential gamechanger is if pediatric hospitals become so overloaded that sick kids can no longer get the care they need, whether for COVID or for some other illness. We might be back to a “flatten the curve” scenario for our unvaccinated under-12 population, which no one expected after the vaccines arrived.

Speaking of which, pediatricians have begun to twist the FDA’s arm about approving vaccines for children under 12 ASAP in the name of heading off Delta before it runs wild in schools this winter. Until that happens, the best way to limit kids’ exposure to the variant is for adults around them to get vaxxed instead. That won’t absolutely prevent transmission but it’ll make it less likely:

I’ll leave you with Scott Gottlieb, who disappointed a lot of conservative parents on “Face the Nation” yesterday when he endorsed masking kids in school this fall. Gottlieb worries that Delta might be different with respect to virulence in children, in which case it’s prudent to do what we can to limit transmission until we have more data. His analogy here is a poor one, though: Given the lower risk to kids, there’s an obvious difference between having 30 unvaxxed unmasked adults in a room together and 30 unvaxxed unmasked children.