What We Know About COVID-19 In Kids

Reports of “Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome” in kids suggest the disease may be more dangerous than once thought.

Image for post

This week, I want to talk about the children.

I am constantly thankful that COVID-19 seems to spare children. Can you imagine what the situation would be like if young kids were at significant risk? I have three young kids at home, and if there was a substantial risk to their lives I’m not sure I could walk through those hospital doors.

Image for post
Risk of Death from COVID-19, England

But from the beginning it’s been clear that age is one of, if not the most important risk factor for COVID-19 mortality, as this data out of England shows.

Data from Iceland gives us more promising information. Using random screening of the population, zero out of 848 children under the age of 10 tested positive by PCR for COVID-19, as compared to around 1% of those above age 10.

Putting this together, the early data seemed to say 1) that kids were less likely to get the coronavirus, and if they did were less likely to die.

As we consider how to reopen society, these data points suggest that opening schools may actually be a good first step. The concern of kids transmitting virus to more susceptible loved ones at home may be moot if they don’t get it in the first place. And of course, opening schools would relieve parents of childcare responsibility allowing them to work.

But recently, new reports have called into question the nature of covid-19 infections in kids.

Image for post

May 14th. The CDC issues a health advisory regarding Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome (MIS) in Children associated with COVID-19.

What is this thing? And how many kids are affected?

Image for post
Characteristics of MIS in COVID-19

The syndrome is characterized by fever, hypotension, and organ dysfunction. Of note respiratory symptoms do not appear to be universal.

Though MIS shares features of Kawasaki disease, the classic bilateral conjunctival injection, rash and strawberry tongue aren’t always present.

As with all things COVID-19, the first study we got on this topic was a case series. The Lancet article chronicled eight kids, between 4 and 14 years of whom 6 were of AfroCaribbean descent. Three required mechanical ventilation. One died. All were either PCR or antibody positive for SARS-COV2. That’s important — it seems like this syndrome can occur in the convalescent phase of the illness.

More data has come out of the New York Department of Health. As of May 13th, they are investigating 110 cases of MIS and 3 deaths.

Image for post

The age distribution suggests the highest risk is in the 5–14 year range, but be careful. This is very early data and attribution bias may be at play here. Older kids with the syndrome may be diagnosed with simply COVID-19, which can lead to severe illness. If you don’t think of MIS, you don’t diagnose MIS.

The racial breakdown in New York City seems to be consistent with population averages, though there’s a bunch of missing data here.

In New York, just 1% of those hospitalized are under the age of 20 — that’s amounts to around 750 kids. With 110 cases of MIS, this is not super rare — at least among those kids who are sick enough to get to the hospital.

And that’s the important take home — the risk of this syndrome remains incredibly small. We need more data, but here’s my back-of-the-envelope calculation.

If you started with 100,000 kids infected with COVID-19, we’d expect 5000 to be hospitalized. We’d expect 733 cases of MIS. Of those, we might see 20 deaths — that’s 0.02 percent.

That is not zero. That means we need to figure out how to treat this syndrome as fast as possible. But it is also not high enough to keep me from walking through those hospital doors.

A version of this commentary first appeared on medscape.com

Written by

Writing about medicine, science, statistics, and the abuses thereof. Commentator at Medscape. Associate Professor of Medicine at Yale University.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store