Updated at 7 p.m.: Revised to include information about infant cases in North Texas.
The number of children infected with coronavirus in Dallas County has increased steadily as the summer has worn on — and with classes soon to resume statewide, health experts say the perception that kids aren’t susceptible to COVID-19 needs to end.
Since the pandemic began in Dallas County, 3,821 children under 18 have tested positive for the virus. That accounts for nearly 10% of all the cases reported between March 24 and July 17, according to data collected by Dallas County.
The number of children with the virus more than tripled between March and May, jumping from 2% to 11% of cases for those months, respectively, the data shows. The number decreased slightly in June but already jumped back to 11% at the halfway point of July.
And though children still represent only a fraction of the more than 40,000 confirmed cases in the county, some health experts worry the numbers convey a wrong impression.
“There’s a false sense of security right now for many people,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Health. “They think that their children are not going to get COVID because children have this innate protection against viral infection. That’s not true.”
Health experts have said statewide figures highlight a problem health experts have stressed throughout the pandemic: Not much is known about what role children play in the transmission of the disease.
State data show a relatively small proportion of kids have been affected. Although the state health department doesn’t keep track of the number of children who have tested positive over time, cumulatively 7.3% of the people who have tested positive have been under 19.
The data, however, are incomplete. Although more than 332,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported across Texas, demographic results were available only for just over 28,200 patients as of Monday because of reporting lags between the state and local health departments.
Kahn said it is important to pay attention to the increasing reports of kids getting seriously ill.
In Corpus Christi, for example, a 6-week-old boy died after he contracted the virus, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported. He had a co-infection and his death was identified as sudden infant death syndrome.
“Unfortunately it does not discriminate,” Dr. Adel Shaker, Nueces County Medical Examiner, told CNN. “It affects people with co-morbidities, and with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, hypertension and obesity, but now it affects everybody. Nobody is secluded from infection.”
In the same county, 85 infants under 1 year old have tested positive for the virus, CNN reported. No other details were available about their conditions.
More than 400 infants have contracted the virus in North Texas, KXAS-TV (NBC5) reported. There have been 240 cases in Dallas County among children younger than 1, 113 in Tarrant County, 42 in Collin County and 38 in Denton County.
In Dallas County, a 17-year-old girl who had no known underlying health conditions died from the virus in April. Her family declined to comment.
Hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 have been steadily increasing in Dallas County since the early days of the pandemic. A total of 101 have been hospitalized with the virus as of July 17, according to the county’s data. The largest jump in hospitalizations among children came in June, with 17 children hospitalized at the beginning of the month and almost 50 by the end of the it.
Fifteen children were hospitalized with the virus at Children’s Health as of Monday.
Why are cases in Dallas County increasing?
Kahn said the rising cases among children in Dallas County could be due to a larger portion of infections being in people who are likely to have children, who they then go on to expose.
Dallas County health officials have said more than half of the cases reported after June 1 have been among people between the ages of 18 and 39.
“I would say overall — and this is not only true for COVID, it’s true for just about any respiratory virus — the greatest chance of you acquiring infection is if someone in your household is infected,” Kahn said.
Likewise, the main concern with children is that if they get a mild form of the virus, they may go on to infect older adults.
In Hidalgo County in South Texas, where health officials have described a “tsunami” of cases, a child went on to infect his parents, the San Antonio Express-News reported. The parents later died from the virus, said Dr. Ivan Melendez, a physician and Hidalgo County’s local health authority.
“This is not a conspiracy theory. This is the absolute truth,” he said in an online briefing, according to the Express-News.
Kahn said day cares, which were allowed to reopen in mid-May after they were restricted to essential workers during the early days of the outbreak, may be contributing to the increase in cases because children are in close contact in them.
Since June 1, more than 54 COVID-19 cases in children and staff members were reported in at least 26 separate day cares in Dallas County, health officials said.
What does this mean for school in the fall?
Some health experts have said the lack of data about how kids spread coronavirus could stem from the fact that schools were closed early in the pandemic.
Others say children overall haven’t been tested as much as adults, making the results less complete. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Health adviser, said last week that nationwide, the lowest proportion of testing has been in children under 10.
Most health experts agree that it’s better to be cautious when it comes to the coming school year.
After weeks of deliberating how to resume classes, the Texas Education Agency announced Friday that schools can opt for online learning until as late as November.
Although many districts are still deciding how to proceed, health officials have ordered private and public schools to remain closed through Sept. 7 in Dallas, El Paso, Laredo and Tarrant counties.
However, private religious schools could still open regardless of local orders, Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday in a letter. He said those schools provide religious services, which the governor considers essential. Several local private schools have said they are still deciding how to begin the school year.
Kahn said when it is time for parents to decide whether to send their kids to school, they should get advice from a pediatrician and consider whether the child or other household members are in a high-risk group for the virus.
He said parents should prepare their children by getting them in the habit of wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands often to prepare for school. If kids are having trouble wearing masks, Kahn said, their parents should acclimate them to wearing them at home a half-hour or an hour at a time.
Kahn said such steps have helped prevent the spread of illness since the 1918 flu epidemic, before viruses were even discovered, and children are capable of learning to take these steps.
“It’s striking to me that we’re having to relearn this lesson,” Kahn said. “It’s three simple things you can do to reduce the risk.”
Staff writer Tom Steele contributed to this report.