After a dip in COVID-19 cases earlier this summer, the virus has once again caused a surge of illness in various states across the United States. Public health officials pin the increase on slowed vaccination rates and the rise of the Delta variant, which is the predominant strain of the virus in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, children and babies are being impacted by the Delta variant too. As of October 7th, over 6.0 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) with over 750,000 cases added in the past four weeks.
Given that children under the age of 12 aren’t yet authorized to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s understandable to have continuing concerns about how the virus — and especially the Delta variant — might affect your little ones. Here’s what we know right now.
What are the symptoms of the Delta variant in children?
The CDC says symptoms of COVID-19 may include:
- Shortness of breath
- New loss of taste or smell
- Shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
Symptoms generally seem to be similar for both babies and adults. However, babies tend to have more mild symptoms of COVID-19. They can include: fever, runny nose, sneezing and gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea.
While it’s entirely possible for a child or baby to have these same symptoms with the Delta variant, some doctors in the field say they’ve noticed that pediatric patients with Delta tend to have certain symptoms more than others.
“For kids, what we’re seeing with Delta is that it resembles more of a typical upper respiratory illness,” says Juan C. Salazar, M.D., M.P.H., physician-in-chief and executive vice president of academic affairs at Connecticut Children’s. In his experience, a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat and fever have seemed to be common with the Delta variant.
A proper diagnosis can be even tricker for pediatricians right now given the nationwide rise in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory illness that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms (and may look similar to COVID-19) but can lead to more severe illness in babies. Symptoms of RSV include:
- Runny nose
- Decrease in appetite
If your child has any of the above symptoms, it’s a good idea to get them tested for COVID-19 to be safe.
Does the Delta variant cause more severe illness in children?
Data on the Delta variant is still emerging. Two studies suggest that Delta might cause more severe illness in unvaccinated people compared to previous strains. But right now, experts say the variant does not appear to cause more severe illness in children.
However, we do know that the Delta variant is highly contagious — more than twice as contagious as previous COVID-19 variants, according to the CDC. “That’s why we’re seeing more infections in children,” says Micah Resnick, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.
In other words, because more children are being infected by the Delta variant, more are developing severe illness. Rising COVID-19 case numbers coupled with the fact that children under 12 are still unvaccinated means babies and kids are especially vulnerable to infection right now — mild or otherwise, experts say.
How can you protect your children from the Delta variant?
There are a few steps you can take to help keep your family safe:
- Practice good hand hygiene. The whole family should be in the habit of washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (If soap and water aren’t available, adults can use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol; babies and toddlers should not use hand sanitizer.)
- Follow social distancing guidelines. Continue to follow the advice of the CDC and your local government and practice social distancing in public.
- Wear masks. Adults and children 2 and up should wear masks in public and when around people, especially indoors, who are not in their household(here are some of our favorite masks for young children). “Wear masks everywhere, whether you’re vaccinated or not,” says Lawrence Kleinman, M.D., professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.
- Be mindful of indoor settings. Crowded indoor spaces and those that do not have good air circulation are especially risky. Whenever possible, “keep children out of public indoor spaces entirely,” says Dr. Resnick.
- Avoid nonessential travel. The CDC recommends against nonessential travel for anyone who is unvaccinated. If you must travel with little ones, take preventative measures such as wearing a mask (for those 2 and up) on public transportation and when in indoor settings.
Get vaccinated. Children under 12 may not yet be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, but you can help protect them by being fully vaccinated yourself.
- Get your kids vaccinated once they’re eligible. Experts are hopeful that kids 5 to 12 will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine sometime this fall.