Despite a surge in pediatric COVID-19 infections in many parts of the world, there is no concrete evidence that the delta variant is more dangerous for children, a number of Israeli health experts say.
In the United States’ latest delta-fueled outbreak, pediatricians are reporting that a growing number of children are being hospitalized with more serious illnesses, especially in states that are currently experiencing a spike in infections. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told ABC News on Sunday that the US does not currently have “rigorous data” to determine whether the delta variant is more serious for children, but he did acknowledge “hearing from pediatricians that they’re concerned that, this time, the kids who are in the hospital are both more numerous and more seriously ill.”
In Israel, which is currently in the midst of its own delta surge, health experts revealed that, so far, the new variant has not proven to be more virulent than its predecessors.
What does appear to be behind the rising number of pediatric hospitalizations is delta’s hypertransmissibility.
“Because this [variant] is much more contagious, you have increasing numbers of children that are being infected and they are unvaccinated,” Dr. Rivka Abulafia-Lapid, a senior virology and immunology expert who lectures at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
“It’s a matter of numbers,” she said. “The virus’ infectivity is very high, so children that are very close together in classes or groups can get it.”
Abulafia-Lapid has researched vaccine development for nearly three decades and also is a visiting professor at OHSU (Oregon Health and Science University) in Portland, Oregon.
According to Abulafia-Lapid, even though most children who are infected with the virus will experience very mild or even no symptoms at all, a very small number are at risk of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. The condition causes dangerous inflammation around the heart and organs several weeks after the initial infection.
For this reason, “it is recommended that children between 12 and 15 get vaccinated,” she said.
Many children that are infected do not have any signs or symptoms, but those who do usually get through it with no problem
Similarly, Dr. Yoav Yehezkelli, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University who specializes in emergency and disaster management, and who is a member of Israel’s Public Emergency Council for the Coronavirus Crisis, said that there is no reason to believe the delta variant is more virulent.
“I don’t think there is any data to indicate that the delta variant is more dangerous for children,” Yehezkelli told The Media Line, adding: “It is more infectious and more transmissible.”
As of Monday, more than 650 Israelis were hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout the country, with the vast majority of serious cases found in those age 60 and over. Below the age of 18, only one (unvaccinated) teen is in serious condition.
“In children, it is usually a very light disease,” Yehezkelli affirmed. “Many children that are infected do not have any signs or symptoms, but those who do usually get through it with no problem.”
Dr. Moshe Ashkenazi, a pediatrician and deputy director of the Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center in central Israel, also said that he was not concerned about the effect of the delta variant on younger patients.
“According to what we see now in the Safra Children’s Hospital, we don’t see that this variant is more virulent among children,” Ashkenazi told The Media Line, adding that both children currently hospitalized in Safra’s coronavirus wing are in mild condition.
“From the publications and current literature known to us, we don’t see more virulence among kids, and not in other hospitals in Israel,” he added.
Ashkenazi recommended that parents closely monitor children who are infected and showing symptoms at home. While a high fever and coughing are to be expected with COVID-19, parents should consult with a pediatrician if a child develops shortness of breath, he said.
Meanwhile, amid the rapid rise in cases of the coronavirus in Israel, the government on Sunday laid out its plan for the reopening of the next school year, which is slated to start on September 1.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved the joint Education Ministry and Health Ministry plan, which will see all 1.6 million students undergo serological testing to determine who has already been infected with the virus. In addition, children will be required to take a rapid antigen test 48 hours before the start of the school year.
A student found to be infected with COVID-19 will be required to enter isolation immediately and all those who have been in contact with that student will be required to undergo testing every day for a week.
All students and teachers will have to wear masks and maintain social distancing under the plan.
Students in schools in cities and towns that have high rates of infection also will be tested once a week.
The model in which tests are conducted frequently allows students and parents to continuously monitor morbidity on the one hand and isolate those who are required on the other. This inevitably reduces the number of isolations in the education system and in the economy as a whole.
The goal of the frequent testing model is to enable the school year to proceed as normal, according to Israel’s Education Ministry.
“The aim of the program is to conduct studies as continuously as possible and to reduce social, emotional and educational gaps created as a result of the coronavirus,” a ministry spokeswoman told The Media Line.
“The model in which tests are conducted frequently allows students and parents to continuously monitor morbidity on the one hand and isolate those who are required on the other,” she said. “This inevitably reduces the number of isolations in the education system and in the economy as a whole.”
However, some health experts were left scratching their heads over the new directives.
Yehezkelli said that while it is commendable that the government is attempting to bring children back to routine, the numerous layers of testing are “an exaggeration” since the virus does not pose a serious health risk to kids.
“It does not pose much of a problem for children to be infected because, once they are infected, they recover and become immune,” Yehezkelli said. “They can contribute a lot to herd immunity, much more than if they had been vaccinated. Vaccination does not prevent transmission of the disease; it prevents serious [cases].”
However, the doctor still recommends proceeding with caution. Because symptomatic people are much more likely to transmit the virus than those who are asymptomatic, everyone with symptoms should stay home and get tested, he says.
“We are in a different era this year because we have the vaccines,” he stressed. “Although they do not prevent much of the transmission, they still protect us from serious disease which is really the most important.”
The more you have infections among children and the unvaccinated, the more you have variants
Others did not entirely agree with this assessment and said delaying the school year might be a better option.
“I don’t know if I would recommend opening schools,” said Abulafia-Lapid. “Keeping distance, masking and hygiene are very important and very difficult [to enforce] with children.”
Abulafia-Lapid nevertheless lauded the government’s frequent testing plan and said it was a good, albeit costly, way to prevent mass infection.
As more and more people get infected with COVID-19, it is likely going to evolve to become even more transmissible in order to infect a maximal number of hosts, she noted. This also increases the risk of the virus evolving into more dangerous, vaccine-evading forms.
“The more you have infections among children and the unvaccinated, the more you have variants,” Abulafia-Lapid explained. “Because this is an RNA virus, it mutates much more than other viruses.”