Now is the time to rethink COVID safety protocols for children -- and adults

Some of these comparisons aren’t so neat, since the extraordinary precautions against COVID-19 prevented significant additional spread (and also suppressed the spread of other diseases). But, last year, fewer kids died of COVID-19 than of heart disease, “malignant neopolasms,” suicide, and homicide — not to mention birth defects, which killed hundreds of times more. All told, 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID over the course of the pandemic; just 0.05 percent of those were under the age of 18, a population that represents more than 20 percent of the country’s population as a whole...

And the risk of children is dramatically smaller still than that CDC baseline; according to one, much-cited paper, the infection fatality rate for those aged 5 to 9 is less than 0.001 percent, about one-tenth the risk of flu for that age group. It suggests that a child of that age, even sick, faces roughly one-ten-thousandth the mortality risk of an 85-year-old. Statistically speaking, if a kid who comes down with a coronavirus infection is facing a threat to her life equivalent to the flu — perhaps significantly less — a 90-year-old who does so is treading in the neighborhood of anthrax, the bubonic plague, and certain lighter outbreaks of Ebola. It was often said, in lamentations of American indifference at the outset of the pandemic, that the country would have taken the disease much more seriously if it hadn’t spared the very young. In the year that followed, we mostly pretended it didn’t.

A large new study from the U.K. examining the fatality rate among all those under 18 found it only fractionally higher there — 0.005 percent. But the fatality rate for RSV in healthy children, in contrast, is estimated to fall between 0.5 percent and 1.7 percent — at least 100 times higher. RSV is never as prevalent as the coronavirus has been this year, of course, which makes the comparison an imperfect one — as all of these are. But overall, 126,000 Brits have died of COVID since the onset of the pandemic; just 26 of those were under the age of 18. Death is not the only scary outcome of COVID-19 infection, of course, and hospitalizations don’t skew quite as dramatically as mortality. But an 85-year-old is still, according to the CDC, 15 times likelier to be hospitalized from COVID than a 20-something, who is many times more likely to need that care than a child. Did you know that the WHO doesn’t even recommend universal mask-wearing for kids younger than 12?