Is the Delta variant worse for kids? Answers to your questions

a little girl wearing a mask to help protect against delta variant
Should your child keep wearing a mask? If the highly contagious Delta variant is any indication, the answer is yes. (Adobe Stock)

As kids across the country return to in-person school, the COVID-19 pandemic looks a bit different from last year. Children and teens ages 12 and older are now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and as a result, some states have relaxed certain public health restrictions, such as mask mandates.

Enter the Delta variant. Believed to be far more contagious than the original version of the virus that causes COVID-19, Delta appears to be fueling a rise in infections and hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated adults. But what does this mean for kids younger than 12 — and what should we expect during the upcoming school year? We asked Dr. Rose Lee, an infectious specialist doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital, to weigh in.

How is the Delta variant different from other versions of the virus?

It’s still unclear whether the Delta variant can cause more severe disease in unvaccinated people than the original virus, although some research from Canada and Scotland suggests that it may. What we do know is that Delta can spread faster and much more easily: According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this variant is more than twice as contagious as previous variants.

Is the Delta variant a bigger problem for kids than the original coronavirus?

Not necessarily. COVID-19 caused by the Delta variant largely appears to be a disease of the unvaccinated. Because kids under age 12 aren’t yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines — and because the majority of new COVID-19 cases are now caused by the Delta variant — it may seem as if Delta is worse for children than the original virus. But we don’t yet know whether it actually causes more severe disease in kids or whether it is simply spreading more quickly because they aren’t vaccinated.

Is the Delta variant more likely to cause MIS-C or “long COVID”?

We don’t know. It seems likely that kids would be at the same, relatively small risk for developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) and long-lasting post-COVID symptoms like fatigue from Delta as they are from the original virus. However, it’s too soon to know whether this is the case.

Could vaccinated older children and teens still be at risk for infection with the Delta variant?

It’s possible. According to the CDC, we are seeing some breakthrough infections with the Delta variant in people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The good news: Most vaccinated people who become infected will have far milder symptoms of the disease. The majority of severe cases are in unvaccinated adults.

Can someone who is fully vaccinated still spread the Delta variant?

Yes. Even fully vaccinated people appear to spread the Delta variant, although they are likely infectious for a shorter period of time than their unvaccinated peers.

How can we protect unvaccinated children?

It’s important to remember that, overall, COVID-19 remains less severe in children than in unvaccinated adults and that the risk of MIS-C is also very low. However, if your child is eligible, they should be vaccinated. Otherwise, the advice for protecting kids from the Delta variant is the same as it has been for the original virus: Wear masks when in public indoor spaces, practice social distancing when possible, and wash your hands thoroughly and often.

Get more answers about COVID-19 and kids.

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