Dr. Rachel Herlihy is Colorado’s top epidemiologist and a leading expert for our state on COVID-19.

She recently answered questions from our team at Forward Together about how the coronavirus affects children and teenagers, and how we can best protect them and support them during the pandemic.

Q: What do researchers know at this point about the health risks of the Coronavirus for children and teenagers?

Dr. Rachel Herlihy: We know that children do develop infection due to COVID-19, and they also can develop severe infection. When they develop symptoms they do tend to be milder. And they also may be more likely to have asymptomatic infections, meaning that they will be infected with the virus but show no symptoms at all. That’s a pretty unique aspect of this and can be quite challenging, because we know that when individuals are asymptomatic, they are much more likely to be out in the community, potentially giving the virus to other people. 

The other important thing to know is that there appears to be this spectrum of illness where we see that the young children are really those that are much more likely to have the milder infection, more likely to be asymptomatic. Then if you look at teens, they are more likely to look a little bit more like adults in the course of their infection. 

The other unique factor about COVID-19 in children is something called MIS-C, which is the Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome. This occurs several weeks after infection. We see a small number of children develop a very rare syndrome causing an overwhelming inflammatory response. They end up often having a high fever that is not responsive to certain medications. They can develop rash and abdominal pain, and this severe syndrome often results in children being hospitalized. Sometimes they need to be in intensive care units with support for their breathing or blood pressure. Again, this is rare, but it is something unique that we are seeing in children, especially older children and teens.

COVID-19 is usually milder in children

Children often show no symptoms, making it harder to control the spread among them

Symptoms are often more severe in teenagers

COVID-19 can cause a rare but severe syndrome in youth

Q: As this pandemic continues, many young people right now are really missing their old social lives, being in person with friends and part of group activities that have been canceled. Are there any ways that we as parents and adults can support our young people to enable them to do that, but to do it safely?

Dr. Herlihy: Just like adults, young people do need to be practicing social distancing and limiting their interactions with others, but there are ways to do that more safely. One important strategy is to try to interact more virtually. Interacting with individual friends, groups of friends, or clubs online is a great strategy to still continue to interact with people but to do so in a completely safe way from the comfort of your own home. 

Similarly, we recognize the importance of children and young people interacting in person. That’s important for their social and emotional development, and there are ways to do that more safely. One way would be to have gatherings that are smaller. Ideally, we want people to be interacting with just one or two friends if that’s possible. 

When gathering in person, practice social distancing – maintaining that physical space, that 6 feet between individuals, to wear masks while interacting with friends, and to interact with friends more often outdoors. We know that there’s much less risk of transmission of COVID-19 in outdoor settings. 

Parents can support online socializing for youth

In-person gatherings should be small

Youth should practice social distancing, wear masks, meet outside

Q: Are there any other things that you would recommend that should be top-of-mind for parents and adults as we continue to work to keep our children safe?

Dr. Herlihy: We know that this is a difficult time for young people socially and emotionally, and it’s also a difficult time for adults. There’s a lot of stress in our households. We’re all feeling cabin fever. We have lots of unique work stresses on us right now. I think it’s just important to remember during this difficult time to have those open, honest conversations with young people in your life, to talk to them about the importance of keeping themselves safe and practicing social distancing.

Practicing social distancing also ensures that other members of your community are safe. I think it’s important for parents, guardians and all adults in young people’s lives to ensure that they are leading by example. Practicing social distancing themselves, wearing masks when they are out in public themselves. I’m a parent and I try to demonstrate those behaviors to my child as well. 

Talk with youth about COVID-19 safety precautions

Explain importance of protecting others

Lead by example: distancing and wearing masks in public

Forward Together Team

The Forward Together team is composed of Coloradans like you. We're here to help you build and strengthen your relationships with the young people in your life through their growing and developing years.