The number of children diagnosed with COVID-19 has nearly doubled since school started for most students in Kern County.
Health experts attribute the sharp rise to several converging factors: rising case rates in the community, increased testing of students, low vaccination rates among a younger population and increased socializing in the community. The increased numbers are creating challenges at school campuses where many cases are being discovered.
Aug. 18 marked the day when 18 districts in Kern that together educate about half the county's students opened their campuses, including Kern High, Panama-Buena Vista Union and Bakersfield City school districts.
A review of data from the Kern County COVID dashboard shows that from that Aug. 18 until Tuesday, there were 1,538 new cases of COVID among Kern residents under 18 years old. In the previous 13 days before school started, there were 770 new cases of COVID among Kern residents. This represents a 99.7 percent rise in cases.
Confirmed cases rose among all demographics in the county, but the increase was especially pronounced in Kern's youngest residents. During that same period, new COVID cases among those 18 years and older rose 38 percent.
This does not mean COVID is more prevalent in children. On Tuesday, the county dashboard broke down the age data of all the county's positive confirmed cases: 16,607 people age 17 and under; 75,167 ages 18 to 49; 22,015 people ages 50 to 64; and 11,089 people ages 65 and older.
Kern County isn't alone in seeing an uptick in pediatric diagnoses of COVID now that schools are open.
A public health professor at the University of California at Irvine, Andrew Noymer, said the surge itself is causing an increase in cases across the board, while the increased testing regimes in the education system is finding them in children.
"When you test, you find," he said.
The surge in cases is coming at the same time that there are more students on Kern County campuses than there have been since the pandemic began. It's been "taxing," according to Robert Meszaros, spokesman for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools. Contact tracing for older students can be particularly daunting, particularly for those in grades 7 through 12, where students change classes and are more involved in extracurriculars and athletics.
Dr. Marvin Campos, area medical director for Kaiser Permanente in Kern County, said pediatric wards are busier than they were during previous surges. He is seeing a multiplier effect with testing of students. When one person — whether a teacher or student — is diagnosed with COVID, it can spur an entire class to get tested, finding new cases.
"Because we’re testing kids more, there’s a lot of layers of cascading cause and effect," said Noymer. "There may have been cases in June that went undetected. Kids still often have asymptomatic COVID."
There isn't anything about this wave of COVID or the delta variant that targets a younger population, Noymer said. But there are factors that are making the younger population more susceptible.
One is that no vaccine has been approved for those under 12 years old. Campos said cases are especially pronounced in students old enough for elementary school but not old enough to be vaccinated. Younger students tend to be less diligent about hand-washing and mask-wearing, he added.
It tends to be older residents who get their shot. According to the state dashboard, 26.6 percent of Kern residents 12 to 17 years old are fully vaccinated. Among residents more than 65 years old the rate of full vaccination is 64.8 percent.
The big question on many parents' mind is whether the schools themselves are sites of transmission. Meszaros said that the robust testing regimen put in place by the California Department of Public Health is part of a statewide strategy to make schools safer.
"The ultimate goal of course is to limit transmission in schools and maximize in-person learning," he wrote in an email. "Schools are probably the safest places anywhere in the community due to the multi-layered mitigation strategies and I’m unaware of any evidence that supports (the notion) that transmission is prevalent in school settings."
It's early to look for evidence, but Campos expects an increase in cases tied to schools. For instance, Noymer said large crowds of people without masks at football games could increase virus transmission.
Most children tend to fare well with COVID, having mild or asymptomatic cases. There are two main worries with COVID in young patients. One is that they could develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which is a rare but serious condition. The other worry is that children with COVID bring it home to older family members. Noyer said it's a myth that children can't transmit COVID.
"Kids can be kind of an engine of transmission," Noymer said. "I'm worried about household members who are not vaccinated."
Noymer recommended Kern residents and their children get vaccinated against COVID-19 when they get an opportunity.
"It might just save their life or someone in their household," Campos said.
Campos recommends the flu vaccine as well, so that children will avoid sniffles that could falsely flag them as a COVID risk.