“For people under the age of 18, Covid is really not that big of a risk,” said Stephen Kissler, a researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “I do think of it as on par with the risk from flu.”
It’s also helpful to put Covid-19 in the context of other risks that children face. About twice as many children drown in a typical year as have died from Covid-19 over the past year. About five times as many die in vehicle accidents. If protecting children from small but real risks of serious harm were society’s top goal, keeping children away from pools and cars would probably have a bigger effect than isolating them in coming months.
There is also evidence that Americans are exaggerating Covid’s risks to children. When a large survey by Gallup and Franklin Templeton asked people to estimate the share of Covid deaths that have occurred among people under age 25, the average answer was 8 percent (and Democratic voters tended to give higher estimates than Republican voters did). The actual answer was 0.1 percent. By contrast, Americans badly underestimated the share of deaths among people over age 65.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told me that she viewed decisions about children’s activities as a matter of personal choice that different parents would make differently. In her family, she said she was worried about how a year of pandemic life had hurt her children, by making them less comfortable in social situations. Once all the adults are vaccinated, she plans to restart more activities.
“I can accept the risks of my kids getting Covid, in part because I compare it to the risk of them getting other infectious diseases and the risk seems very, very small,” Dr. Nuzzo said. “I feel that if my kids were to get Covid, they would be OK. I also see the direct harms of their not having a normal life.”
Of course, many parents aren’t worried only about death or hospitalization with Covid-19. They are also anxious about chronic long-term effects, like potential neurological or cardiac damage. This is a murkier area — and arguably the best case for treating Covid exposure as different from flu exposure. There is a reason scientists use the term “novel coronavirus” to describe this virus: It’s new. We don’t yet know what its eventual effects will be.
Already, some people have suffered from a condition known as long Covid, with protracted fatigue and other symptoms. A recent study published in Nature Medicine found that 2.3 percent of Covid patients had symptoms that lasted for at least 12 weeks.
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