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Children may be isolating too long for COVID-19 infection

Children infected with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 remain infectious for an average of three days after testing positive, according to a new study led by USC and Stanford University.

School policies

The research suggests that the prevalent school policy mandating a five-day isolation period for infected children is more than sufficient, and should be reevaluated.

“We’re basically saying five days is more than sufficient; public-health and education leaders may consider shorter durations,” said co-author Neeraj Sood, Director of the COVID-19 Initiative and a senior fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center.

The analysis showed that by day five, 18.4 percent of the infected children remained contagious. By day ten, this number dropped significantly to 3.9 percent.

Vaccination status 

In a noteworthy observation, the researchers found no significant link between the duration of infectivity and vaccination status. This indicates that school re-entry guidelines may not need to distinguish between vaccinated and non-vaccinated students.

Children’s isolation 

The topic of children’s isolation, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been a matter of significant concern for parents, educators, health professionals, and policymakers.

Isolation is crucial to prevent the spread of the virus. By ensuring that children who have contracted the virus stay away from others during their infectious period, it reduces the risk of community transmission.

Educational impact 

Extended periods of isolation can disrupt children’s education. Especially given the educational interruptions children have already faced during the pandemic, it’s essential to find a balance between health safety and educational continuity.

Mental well-being 

Apart from the educational impact, prolonged isolation can also affect children’s mental and emotional well-being. It can lead to feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. 

Thus, it’s crucial to ensure that kids have the necessary support during these times, whether it’s through virtual interactions, engaging activities, or counseling.

Self-isolation protocols 

The findings of the USC study may ultimately lead to a more informed approach to self-isolation protocols for children.

These protocols – which have been implemented in school districts from New York City to Los Angeles – have been guided by little data so far, said the researchers.

“We want to protect the other children in the school who could potentially get infected, but at the same time, we don’t want to disrupt education for the child who is infected, given the amount of disruption that’s already happened,” said Sood. “The duration of infectivity is an important parameter into figuring out what the optimal duration of self-isolation should be.”

Focus of the study

For the study, the researchers partnered with a virus testing enterprise, examining nasal swabs from 76 children aged 7-18 from Los Angeles County who tested positive for the Omicron variant. 

Nikhilesh Kumar, lead author and a Medicine student at the USC Keck School of Medicine, emphasized the goal was to “capture how infectivity changed over the 10-day window.”

Study implications 

The results are in line with prior research on Omicron-infected adults, which found no correlation between vaccination and infectivity duration. However, adults exhibited slightly prolonged infection durations, with a median of five days.

But as Sood noted, with the virus’s propensity to mutate, ongoing research will be necessary. “We need to continue doing studies like this because the next variant may have a longer or shorter duration of infectivity.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

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