The next COVID-19 surge could involve more kids

covid fourth surge young people fireproof suit analogy
Photo via Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Some experts are seeing—despite ongoing vaccination efforts—evidence that a fourth wave in COVID-19 cases is on its way in the United States. And when it comes, it could affect more young people than prior surges—including children. 

“I do think we still have a few more rough weeks ahead,” said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist, in an April 4 CNN interview. “What we know from the past year of the pandemic is that we tend to trend about three to four weeks behind Europe in terms of our pandemic patterns.”

France and Italy had to impose lockdowns during the Easter weekend, Al-Jazeera reported, as a combination of rising case numbers and the European Union’s comparatively slow vaccination rollout necessitated the move. 

While the U.S. has protected a number of older Americans, with 54% of those 65 and older now fully vaccinated, CNN noted that many young Americans are still waiting on vaccinations. The B.1.1.7 variant that was first found in the U.K. is presenting concerns regarding that segment of the population. 

“We have to think about the B.1.1.7 variant as almost a brand new virus,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told CNN. “It’s acting differently from anything we’ve seen before, in terms of transmissibility, in terms of affecting young people, so we have to take this very seriously.”

“Please understand this B.1.1.7 variant is a brand-new ballgame,” added Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on April 4. “Right here in Minnesota, we’re now seeing the other aspect of this B.1.1.7 variant that hasn’t been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily.”

“Unlike the previous strains of the virus, we didn’t see children under eighth grade get infected often, or they were not frequently very ill,” he remarked. “They didn’t transmit to the rest of the community. That’s why I was one of those people very strongly supporting reopening in-class learning. B.1.1.7 turns that on its head. These kids now are really major challenges in terms of how they transmit.” 

NPR, in an April 2 story on the potential fourth wave of COVID, noted, “In the past seven days, the U.S. reported slightly more than 65,000 new cases per day on average, a jump of 20% from two weeks earlier.” The story noted that some states were experiencing even higher jumps in cases, including as high as 125% in Michigan, with the Midwest and Northeast regions most impacted. 

How the fourth wave of COVID could be stymied

But as Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security observed, the ongoing inoculation efforts could help control whatever increases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths might be on the horizon. In effect, vaccines could help slow down the fourth wave of COVID.

“Thanks to the rapid rollout of vaccines, I don’t think we’ll have a surge that is anything like what we’ve seen before,” she said. “Still, any additional deaths at this point are tragedies, given that we have on hand vaccines that could have prevented them.”

The B.1.1.7 COVID variant is up to 50% more infectious than other variants, and new research suggests it has greater potential for fatal cases and cases requiring hospitalization. 

Osterholm used an analogy of a fireproof suit, saying, “When you get vaccinated, It’s like buying a fireproof suit that works 90, 95% of the time, but it doesn’t work all the time. So why … walk into a big fire if you don’t have to?” 

He added, “Yes, if you are vaccinated, you can start opening up a lot of things in your life that you couldn’t do before. But now, if you know you’re going to be walking into a fire, why do it?” … So get vaccinated, that’s your fireproof suit, but don’t put yourself in harm’s way unnecessarily, because it’s not going to be foolproof.” 

Sources: CNN, Al-Jazeera, NBC News, NPR

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