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Hospitalizations and deaths among children are higher for the seasonal flu than they are for COVID-19
The CDC states that the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19, though kids with underlying medical conditions will be at greater risk for both
But experts caution that we might not yet see the whole picture of how dangerous the coronavirus is for kids because schools largely shut down when it started to spread, shielding them from that potential place of exposure.
As schools across the country open for the uncertain, unprecedented school year to come, opinions are split on how to do so safely.
Some districts have opted for completely virtual learning. Others will try a mix of both online and in-person classes, or will send younger children to school while older kids stay home, or will phase students back to the classroom gradually.
Others still are calling for schools to reopen completely for those who feel well enough to teach and attend, and who aren’t especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
One such voice is U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who in an Aug. 13, 2020 radio interview with Milwaukee talk show host Steve Scaffidi on WTMJ-AM discussed why he believes students need to return to school in person this fall.
For younger people, Johnson asserted, "seasonal flu is actually, in many cases, a deadlier virus if they contract that."
Is Johnson correct that COVID-19 is less deadly for children than the flu?
Let’s dig in.
COVID was less harsh on kids than the flu, this year’s stats show
To back up his claim, Johnson’s office sent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on flu and COVID-19 deaths among Americans under age 18.
During the 2018-19 flu season, the CDC reported approximately 480 flu deaths among children ages 0-17, about 30% of whom had a lab-confirmed case of influenza.
Comparably, 90 American youth have died from coronavirus complications from the beginning of the pandemic through mid-August, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
More than 46,000 children were hospitalized for flu in that 2018-19 period. The hospitalization rate among children 5 to 17 was 39.2 children per 100,000 children. For COVID-19, that hospitalization rate is 6 per 100,000 children ages 5 to 17, the CDC says.
In a report detailing the differences between COVID-19 and the flu, the CDC states that "the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19."
And data from Wisconsin echoes that sentiment. Since the pandemic began, no children have died from COVID-19 complications, according to state Department of Health Services death data, and 147 people ages 0-19 have been hospitalized. In contrast, three pediatric flu deaths occurred during this year’s flu season, DHS data show, and 605 kids ages 17 and under have been hospitalized.
The data show there have been fewer childhood deaths from COVID-19 so far this year than from the seasonal flu.
The hold-up, of course, lies in nuance, said Dr. Jon Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement within UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.
"U.S. schools have been out (and) mostly closed since March, thus extremely limiting cases of SARS-CoV-2 in children. Conversely, we rarely close schools for influenza, thus allowing an attack rate of 30-40% in school-aged children," Temte wrote in an Aug. 27, 2020 email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.
That is, the flu has been able to spread through children more commonly than COVID-19, creating more cases, more complications and more deaths.
Other experts agree. Dr. Chad Vercio, chair of pediatrics at Riverside University Health System in California, said children’s risk from the coronavirus depends on how widespread the virus is in any given area, and that "it is unknown" if COVID hospitalization rates would rise once schools reopen.
And though the early data suggests that COVID-19 is not as bad for children as the flu, it’s just that: Early.
Dr. Vidya Mony, an infectious disease expert with Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., said there isn’t enough data yet to say indisputably that COVID risks are lower for kids.
Johnson claimed that in many cases, the seasonal flu was a deadlier virus for youth than COVID-19.
The numbers show that this year, that was the case. More children died from flu complications than from COVID-19, and were hospitalized at higher rates for the flu.
But experts caution that we don’t have enough data to paint the full picture so early in the game, and that schools shutting down in early spring may have driven down coronavirus case rates in children — meaning we can’t be sure exactly how the virus will move through young people when more of them are potentially getting exposed.
Our definition for Mostly True is "the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information."
That fits here.
Steve Scaffidi Show, "US Senator Ron Johnson," Aug. 13, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States — 2018–2019 influenza season, accessed Aug. 27, 2020
American Academy of Pediatrics, Children and COVID-19: State data report, Aug. 13, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Similarities and differences between flu and COVID-19, accessed Aug. 20, 2020
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, COVID-19: Wisconsin deaths, accessed Aug. 23, 2020
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, COVID-19: Wisconsin cases, accessed Aug. 23, 2020
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Respiratory virus surveillance report, April 4, 2020
Email exchange with Dr. Jon Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Aug. 27, 2020
Politifact, "Fact-check: Ron DeSantis says COVID-19 is a lower risk for school-aged kids than flu," Aug. 20, 2020
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