The third corona wave is rolling over Germany. The country is discussing tightened lockdown regulations – also with a view to daycare centers and schools. The Easter holidays in many federal states end on Friday. And then? Schools open or closed? In view of the bare case numbers, there are demands not to offer any more face-to-face classes.
The culture ministers of the federal states also want to discuss the topic on Thursday. But the role of children in the pandemic is not easy to assess.
First there are the numbers reported by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). A comparison of the recorded corona cases between the last week of February and exactly one month later shows: Among the under-four-year-olds, the 7-day incidence (cases per 100,000 inhabitants and week) at the end of March was 162 percent higher.
Among the five to nine year olds it was even 228 percent, among the ten to 14 year olds almost 200 percent. For comparison: the increase in the 7-day incidence for all age groups was 103 percent.
How much do children contribute to the infection process?
Does that mean that the virus is spreading particularly rapidly among children and adolescents? It is not that easy. According to the German Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (DGKJ) and the Professional Association of Pediatricians (BVKJ) as well as other experts and researchers, children currently do not contribute disproportionately to the infection rate.
In a joint statement, DGKJ and BVKJ cite the increased number of tests in these groups as the reason for the higher incidence values in children and adolescents. A comparison with other age groups based on the incidences is therefore not meaningful.
In fact, between the end of February and the end of March, the number of those tested under PCR increased by around a third among those under the age of four and by 14 percent among those aged between five and 14. In all other age groups the number decreased or remained about the same.
Effects of the quick and self-tests
But it is also conceivable that, for example, the obligatory quick and self-tests at schools lead to more infected people being noticed, sent to the PCR test and then entered in the statistics as “positive”. That would mean that the PCR tests would be used in a more targeted manner.
One could not conclude from the latest development “that the children in the current situation are more often affected or even drivers of the spread,” says the epidemiologist of the Akkon University of Human Sciences in Berlin, Professor Timo Ulrichs.
According to the Berlin virologist Professor Christian Drosten, one should say goodbye to the “stupid idea” that some group is the “driver of the pandemic”, as he explained in an NDR podcast in mid-February. But he also says: “If you leave the schools open while you close other parts – especially the leisure life of adults – then after a while you have a significantly higher frequency of infections in the schoolchildren.”
Studies show that the coronavirus can multiply in the throat of children just as much as in adults – including the more contagious mutant B.1.1.7. However, some scientists assume that children and adolescents are less or similarly contagious as adults.
Large groups inevitably meet in schools and daycare centers
Of course, the pathogen does not stop at educational institutions, especially in regions with high incidences – despite all the precautionary measures in the buildings and on the paths there. While private contacts are hardly allowed anymore, larger groups inevitably meet in schools and daycare centers. In addition, classroom teaching increases general mobility: children and young people travel by bus or subway, parents bring their offspring and stay at home less often.
In view of the third corona wave, epidemiologist Ulrichs advocates an at least extensive closure of daycare centers and schools as a component of a major strategy to avoid contacts. “Actually, an extension of the Easter holidays would make sense as part of an overall lockdown.” However, he is relying on regional concepts. “Where the circumstances allow, lessons should possibly be reopened immediately after the Easter break.”
“School closings should really be the very last resort,” says Professor Johannes Huebner, Deputy Director of the Children’s Clinic and Children’s Polyclinic at the University of Munich. DGKJ Vice President Professor Ingeborg Krägeloh-Mann also considers it “really the last option” to close schools.
“Collateral damage” from school closings
In many areas, restrictions can be made up for with money, says Hübner. But there is “so much collateral damage” in children and adolescents when they are at home all the time. This includes, for example, cases of domestic violence, a lack of exercise due to sports and swimming lessons being canceled, and a lack of interaction with friends. Not to mention the missed school material.
It is still unclear how the pathogen spreads among young people – for example, whether it is more often carried outside into the classroom instead of the pupils infecting one another. “We still don’t know exactly where the individual transmissions really take place,” says Ulrichs.
According to the RKI, there is often a lack of information on the source of the infection. Only less than a tenth of the reported corona cases of all age groups could be assigned to an outbreak at the end of March / beginning of April. Do most of the infections occur in private contacts? Or in the areas of public life where people come together – including in schools? Ulrichs: “That’s still rather speculative.” (dpa)