Faster virus spread among young prompts concern

By Scott Wyland
swyland@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 5/17/20

The novel coronavirus has started spreading faster among New Mexico's younger populations, creating concern among state leaders as they begin looking at how and when to reopen public schools in the …

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Faster virus spread among young prompts concern

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The novel coronavirus has started spreading faster among New Mexico's younger populations, creating concern among state leaders as they begin looking at how and when to reopen public schools in the coming months.

The infection rate in people 19 and under has almost doubled in the past two weeks to 13 percent of the kids tested. That percentage is four times the national average of 3.2 percent and puts New Mexico second only to Wyoming.

In McKinley County, in the state's northwestern hot spot, kids account for nearly 14 percent of confirmed cases, according to state data.

State health officials are concerned about the growth of what they call "super spreaders" - who show mild or no symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but unwittingly pass the illness to many others. Experts initially feared children infected with the virus were super spreaders, easily transmitting the disease to more vulnerable people, such as elderly relatives.

Recent research, however, casts doubt on that theory.

Still, New Mexico officials remain cautious.

"Every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be of great concern, including its possible effects on children and their potential to spread the virus," Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the Governor's Office, said in an email.

The new school year officially starts in early August. No decisions have been made on the potential reopening of schools, Sackett said.

The state Public Health Department is creating a task force to address the many complex issues of reopening schools safely, including how to do it with the increasing infection rate among children, said Nancy Martira, the agency's spokeswoman.

Discussions will include various precautions that might be taken, such as blanket testing of children and developing ways to keep them 6 feet apart in classrooms, hallways and cafeterias, Martira said.

"All of those tactics are on the table, [but] no decisions have been made yet," Martira said.

The public health situation is changing too rapidly to develop just one plan for reopening schools, so the agency and task force will craft multiple plans and then use the one that's most suitable at the end of the summer, Martira said.

State Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said New Mexico children are testing positive at a higher rate than the national average partly because the state imposes no age limits on tests and also because it conducts more tests than most other states.

Social distancing is key to keeping children from catching and spreading the virus, Morgan said.

"We understand it's easier said than done for parents," Morgan said. "But limiting your children from playing with groups of other children and adhering to the public health orders really do make a difference."

State data shows McKinley County, which has the state's largest number of confirmed cases and highest rate per capita, had 254 confirmed cases among people younger than 20 as of Friday.

The Navajo Nation, which is being slammed with a severe outbreak, extends into McKinley County. Health experts have noted that many multigenerational Navajo families live in the same household, increasing the risk of asymptomatic children spreading the virus to older family members.

Parents should pay attention to abdominal symptoms that their children may have, such as nausea or diarrhea, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said during the governor's Wednesday video conference.

Children who have at least one of those symptoms and a fever should get tested immediately, Scrase said.

"It's important to get on that early and get the kids tested," he said.

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