This post was originally published on August 19, 2021. It has been updated.
Since it started gaining traction in the U.S. this summer, the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus has outpaced all other variants, currently accounting for a whopping 98.8% of all infections.
Thanks to the highly contagious strain, case numbers have been steadily increasing at rapid rates since July. If that fact alone isn't enough to make you lose sleep, kids are being hospitalized at record rates and community transmission is at peak levels, too. These factors (and many others) mean plenty of parents are nervous about sending kids back to in-person school with the virus still running rampant—especially parents of kids under 12, who are still ineligible for vaccination.
How does the presence of the Delta variant change what we know about COVID and kids?
While we still have a lot of unanswered questions, we're learning more every day. We'll keep updating this story as new details and guidance emerge. Here's what we know now.
Is the Delta variant more contagious? And are kids at a greater risk for contracting this variant?
Experts state that the Delta variant is more than twice as contagious as previous strains of the virus. But it's not that kids are at an especially increased risk of getting the Delta variant—it's that kids under 12 are unvaccinated, and the virus is searching for unvaccinated hosts. We're seeing more pediatric cases now because children are simply more likely to become infected.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), since the pandemic began, children represented 14.6% of total cases. For the week ending August 19, children accounted for a whopping 22.4% of weekly COVID-19 cases—almost 1 in 4.
Now that nearly all COVID cases are caused by the Delta variant, if your child becomes infected, they will likely have the Delta strain.
Does the Delta variant cause more severe disease in kids?
Ultimately, we don't know. Because kids are unvaccinated, we're seeing more cases in kids—but we don't have data on whether kids specifically are more susceptible to serious illness from this strain.
Some CDC data suggest that the Delta variant might cause more severe disease in unvaccinated people, but according to the AAP, at this time, severe illness due to COVID-19 still appears to be uncommon among children.
And while some children will develop severe cases of COVID-19 leading to hospitalization, rates of hospitalization continue to be lower in children of all ages as compared to adults. According to the AAP, fewer than 2% of children with COVID end up being hospitalized, and fewer than 0.03% have died.
"There's no firm evidence that the disease is more severe," says Dr. Jim Versalovic, the pathologist in chief and interim pediatrician in chief at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, to The New York Times. "We certainly are seeing severe cases, but we've seen severe cases throughout the pandemic."
Not to stoke the flames of fear, but what's also worrying is that a small percentage of children who recover from COVID could go on to develop Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but serious condition that can set in weeks after initial infection. The CDC states that 4,400 children have been diagnosed with MIS-C since July 30, 2021.
Do vaccines offer protection against the Delta variant?
A resounding yes! Vaccines are effective against the Delta variant and offer protection against hospitalization with severe illness and death. We see fewer pediatric cases—and less severe cases all around—in communities with higher rates of vaccination.
It's especially striking that in areas where vaccination rates are low, more kids *and* more adults are contracting the disease. While those who have been vaccinated can still transmit COVID, those numbers are much smaller—and vaccinated people seem to be infectious for a shorter period than those who are unvaccinated.
"The single most important thing parents can do is to get vaccinated and to vaccinate all their kids who are 12 and older," says Yvonne Maldonado, an epidemiologist and pediatric infectious-disease professor at Stanford Medical School, in The Atlantic.
Vaccinations can reduce the rate of transmission and infections in children who are ineligible for the shots.
When will vaccines be available for children under 12?
Vaccines are our top defense against this new strain, but the kicker is that they're only currently available for children ages 12 and up. However, vaccine testing trials for kids age 11 and younger are underway, and the latest updates say that vaccines may be approved by the FDA for emergency use authorization as soon as this fall, but full FDA approval may not be expected until year-end.
Should my child wear a mask at school?
Yes, even if your child is vaccinated.
Both the AAP and the CDC recommend universal masking for people age 2 and older in all schools, regardless of vaccination status. For the general public, the organization also recommends masks indoors in public spaces for all: both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
Some experts attribute the rise in Delta to loosening mask mandates across the country. "As soon as mask mandates went away, COVID came back," says Angela Brown, a charge nurse at St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri, in The Atlantic. "And it's back more than it was last year."
Recent research shows that babies and young children can spread the virus more than teens within the home—proving that younger kids do play a role in transmission. Having young children wear a mask at school not only protects them, but could prevent other members of your household from getting sick too.
Masks may also help prevent the spread of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common respiratory virus that's surging at the same time as COVID. RSV can cause serious illness in children under 2.
What's the best way to prevent my child who's ineligible for vaccination from getting the Delta variant?
The most effective way to prevent infection with the Delta variant in children is by taking the following steps:
- Ensuring all members of your household are vaccinated as soon as they are eligible—that includes all kids age 12 and up and all adults, including pregnant and breastfeeding people and those who were recently pregnant.
- If you bring your child to a public space, such as a grocery store, school or daycare, have them wear a mask indoors if over the age of 2. You may also want to wear a mask indoors to set an example for your child—and reduce the risk of transmission of the virus, even if you're vaccinated.
- If your child is under the age of 2, masks are not recommended—but you may want to limit their time in public places.
- Limit your child's interactions with other unmasked, unvaccinated people. If your child is interacting with other unvaccinated children, have them wear a mask, try to keep social distancing top of mind and wash hands regularly.