Coronavirus and babies — from risks to symptoms, here’s what parents need to know

Two day-old David Alejandro Vega was being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinbug, Texas. His mother, Mayra Vega, who tested positive for COVID, had been unable to hold or see him except via video. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Two day-old David Alejandro Vega was being treated in the neonatal intensive care unit at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinbug, Texas. His mother, Mayra Vega, who tested positive for COVID, had been unable to hold or see him except via video. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Eyebrows were raised late last week after a health official in Texas' Nueces County revealed 85 infants had tested positive for COVID-19. "We currently have 85 babies under the age of one year in Nueces County that have all tested positive for COVID-19," Annette Rodriguez, director of public health for Corpus Christi Nueces County, said in a press conference on Friday, per CNN. "These babies have not even had their first birthday yet. Please help us stop the spread of this disease."

But Nueces County judge Barbara Canales later released a statement to clarify that 85 infants have tested positive for the virus since March — not in the past few days. “Stating this number during our press conference led many to believe that we had a sudden surge in infants under the age of one testing positive. We have NOT had a sudden surge of 85 infants testing positive,” Canales said. “The spokesperson was using that statistic to illustrate that no one is naturally immune to this virus. While the elderly and those with existing medical conditions are at greater risk of illness and death, anyone can get the virus, from the elderly to infants, and without regard to race, gender, or economic status. The number was used to illustrate this point.”

According to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Nueces County — which has a population of 383,718 — has seen rapid growth in confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 8,816 cases thus far. Of the 85 infants who tested positive for the virus, one has died. “That child was brought to the hospital with unrelated symptoms and tested for COVID-19 while at the hospital,” Canales said. “The child later died at home.” An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death. 

Babies testing positive isn’t unique to Nueces County. Florida, which has also seen a recent surge in cases, has reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 in infants. Data released by the Florida Department of Health shows that the state has had 1,412 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in babies under the age of one. The number is still just a fraction of the more than 370,000 cases in Florida, but any number of infants diagnosed with COVID-19 is alarming.

To help parents who are concerned, here’s what you need to know.

How worried should parents be about this?

Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life that this doesn’t seem to be a trend. However, Watkins says that this is “good evidence of the large amount of asymptomatic spread that is occurring in the community.” Meaning parents or family members may contract the virus and have it without symptoms, or with very minor symptoms, and unknowingly pass it on to their infant, he says.

Dr. Susan J. Dulkerian, chair of pediatrics and director of newborn services at Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center, agrees. “The greatest majority of positive cases — and the greatest risk — is the risk of transmission from a caregiver or other household member,” she tells Yahoo Life.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echoes that sentiment. “Based on available evidence, most children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults,” the organization says online. “While some children and infants have been sick with COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date.”

It’s hard to know now what these cases mean for young babies. In general, infants seem to be at a higher risk of contracting a serious case of the virus than older babies, Dr. Annmarie Golioto, a neonatologist at Connecticut Children's, tells Yahoo Life. But, she says, the data is “limited.” One study published in the journal Pediatrics in March found that, of 2,100 children in China who contracted COVID-19, nearly 11 percent of those who were a year old or younger had a form of the virus that was classified as “severe and critical”— a significantly higher percentage than older children.

Still, when compared to adults, children — including infants — mostly have minor cases of the virus. “Children, and especially younger children, appear to be less likely to become as critically ill as we have seen in the adult population throughout the world,” Dulkerian says.

Why are infants less likely than older children to be diagnosed with COVID-19?

It’s unclear at this point, but it could have something to do with infants being unable to verbalize how they’re feeling, Golioto says. Infants also tend to have symptoms that are tough to pinpoint. “Infants can have mild symptoms that are similar to a common cold, such as fever, runny nose, and sneezing,” she says. “Some patients have been presenting with gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhea.” It’s often only in cases that progress to more severe illness that the infant may develop a cough and difficulty breathing — more well-known symptoms of COVID-19, she says.

What can parents do to keep infants safe?

Watkins urges parents and family members to be diligent about preventing the spread of COVID-19 if they have an infant at home. “Household members with infants need to pay attention to handwashing and mask-wearing when they go outside,” he says. And, he adds, it’s important to make sure that everyone washes their hands well before handling an infant.

It’s also crucial for parents to do their best to keep babies home as much as possible, Dulkerian says. “We all should be concerned [about] transmission from our environment, and parents should limit taking the infant into the public,” she says. When possible, she says, “parents should follow the advice in their community for social distancing and avoidance of areas where people congregate.”

Golioto adds that parents shouldn’t panic over the risk to infants, but should be aware that babies can contract COVID-19, too. “There are vulnerable people around us everywhere we go and this virus can be spread before we know we have been exposed or are infected,” she says. “Keeping our interactions as minimal as possible, washing hands frequently, and disinfecting high touch areas can go a long way to helping everyone.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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