IRVINE, Calif. — Data on COVID-19 and the accompanying variants have been slow in materializing. Still, a new study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, has shed some light on the disease that has occupied the national consciousness for nearly two years.
The study encompassed a diverse group of 3,200 people, even more than the 2,500 researchers had hoped to track. And it has been one of the few studies to look at antibody numbers in children — nearly 400 of them age five to 17.
The findings show that children are almost exactly as susceptible to contracting COVID-19 as adults are, further eroding an idea perpetuated by some elected officials that children are somehow protected. The study did not, however, analyze the severity of the symptoms children experienced.
“I think we’ve let kids down here tremendously. We should have had a vaccine out for these kids with the adults,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, principal investigator of the study and director of UCI’s program in public health. “I sort of say, how dare we do this to kids. They’re a population that has no choice because there’s no vaccination for them.”
The findings, recently published, arrive as students return to the classroom. Mask and vaccination mandates have been hotly debated topics of conversation. National arguments over mask mandates in schools have bubbled over into anger from parents. Teachers’ unions have also expressed fear over the health of faculty who may be exposed to unmasked youngsters.
The numbers in the study show that a large swath of people have carried the illness even if some of them didn’t know it.
The study found that 28% of adults and 26% of children tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, higher than expected. The study, conducted during the winter surge of 2020-2021, also shows that racial disparities exist. Among Hispanic people in the study, 29% were found to have antibodies for the virus. Among Asian and White patient groups, COVID-19 was found in 15% and 12%, respectively. A previous county-wide study had already shown that Hispanic participants were 50% more likely to test positive for antibodies.
Factors for infection include job occupation and family size. Families working in the service industry or other jobs considered “essential” have been at higher risk of contracting the illness.
Data continues to support the use of masks and social distancing but remains a divisive political battleground. Even as Gov. Gavin Newsom fends off a stronger than expected challenge to his office, masks remain a touchy subject. Leading rival Larry Elder has promised to strike mask mandates as governors of other states have already pledged — if he wins the Sept. 14 recall election.
There also doesn’t appear to be an immediate solution. It’s unclear when a shot will be available for kids 12 and under, but health officials hope the Food and Drug Administration will issue an approval by the end of the year.
The study covered a broad array of people from a range of backgrounds and living circumstances.
“We know that COVID-19 is a disease of disparities, and this research illustrates the disproportionate impact of this devastating disease in areas of high density and those with larger concentrations of essential workers,” said Boden-Albala. “With these findings, public health and city officials will be better able to address the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, as well as future risks to the community’s health and well-being.”
Information on COVID-19 has sometimes been hard to come by as researchers work quickly to learn as much as possible about the novel virus. The delta variant has continued to perplex health officials, but it is clear that it is highly transmissible. The virus has also mutate with offshoots of the delta variant popping up in the United Kingdom and slowly appearing elsewhere.
That makes new studies even more critical as researchers continue to arm physicians and health authorities with as much information as possible.
Boden-Albala said it hasn’t always been easy getting answers from families or convincing people to be in the study.
“Whole families were wiped out, their parents, their uncles. Some of these people whose families were reluctant to participate were also vaccine-hesitant,” she said. “I was really struck by that.”
Vaccine hesitancy has continued to confound officials as the governor continues his lottery-style incentives to lure in worried citizens.
Among the most willing participants, Boden-Albala said, were restaurant workers. Businesses have been open for months, but health and safety standards depend on the individual establishment. While some restaurants have struggled to hire new staff, other workers are driven back to their jobs by need and may not be able to quit even if they’re worried about contracting the virus.
Michael Buchmeier, a UCI infectious disease researcher with more than 40 years of experience, notes the delta variant likely produces 1,000 times more of the virus in the warm and moist nasal passages and upper respiratory system.
That, as officials have emphasized repeatedly, makes getting the vaccine all the more vital. Unvaccinated people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, are 29 times more likely to contract the illness. Buchmeier points to recent data that show less than 1% percent of fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized.
As infection rates climb, with steeper rates expected with the arrival of colder weather, Boden-Albala said it’s still important for children to return to school. Many officials have been reluctant to suggest a second round of distance learning, pointing to alarming educational losses among some students and the added burden it places on working parents.
“I think we need to get kids back to school for their mental and physical enhancement,” she said. “But children need to be masked when they’re in school because their risk is real — as real as an adult's.”