But the risk that a child gets seriously ill is extremely small — comparable to the risk that children face of having serious illness as a result of the flu.
To date, out of more than 74 million children in the United States, there have been about 300 COVID-19 deaths and a few thousand serious illnesses. By comparison, the CDC registered 188 flu-related deaths in children during the 2019-2020 flu season. (This past year, there was essentially no flu season at all.)
Hospitalization numbers look worse for COVID-19. But those numbers are inflated as a result of the CDC’s reporting rules. The CDC requires every child admitted to a hospital to be tested for the coronavirus.
Dr. Roshni Mathew, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, says experience at her hospital found that 45% of the time, a child who tested positive for the coronavirus was not actually sick with COVID-19. The findings have been published online in the journal Hospital Pediatrics.
In those cases, hospitalization was due to “a completely unrelated diagnosis, like appendicitis or femur fracture or something else,” she says.
For children in particular, the risk of serious consequences from COVID-19 is the same magnitude as the risk they face from the flu, she says. But many parents seem more worried about the new and less familiar disease. That anxiety is heightened by the new guidelines on mask-wearing. But experts urge parents to try not to worry too much.
“If you stop going into stores because you’re terrified you’ll run into an unmasked person, that’s probably overreacting,” says Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor who studies health conundrums like this at Carnegie Mellon University.
It’s understandable why parents would feel that way, she says. Though these risks are very low, they’re not zero. And people struggle to conceptualize the difference between small risks — for example, something that’s 1 in 1,000 versus 1 in 1 million.