Children have led Georgia’s delta-driven COVID-19 surge

Pearson Middle School students exit their busses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. A new state health report shows school-age children led in COVID-19 infection rates during the most recent surge. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Pearson Middle School students exit their busses during the first day of school at Pearson Middle School in Marietta, Monday, August 2, 2021. A new state health report shows school-age children led in COVID-19 infection rates during the most recent surge. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Children in Georgia had far higher rates of infection with COVID-19 than other age groups during the surge fueled by the delta variant this fall, a new state report shows.

Younger adults led prior surges, but the new report by the Georgia Department of Public Health shows that children exceeded them this time, with the highest infection rates per capita of any age group — not to mention the highest rates for children ever in this pandemic.

Adults aged 18-22 had 687 infections per 100,000 people in their age group during the peak in late August, according to the first installment of the COVID-19 Age Trends report, published on the DPH website last week.

The number of COVID-19 cases has been falling for a month, but in late August, the rate among children aged 11-17 reached 1,177 infections per 100,000, about 70% higher than for those youngest adults. Both age groups, with the exception of 11-year-olds, were eligible for vaccination during the months preceding the peak.

The infection rate for children aged 5-10, who cannot be vaccinated, was lower than for 11-17 year-olds, but still surpassed the adult rates, reaching 790 infections per 100,000.

The information came in the first of what a DPH spokeswoman said will be weekly reports.

Microbiologist Amber Schmidtke, whose periodic “COVID Digest” gained a following among school nurses, teachers, parents and other observers during the pandemic, wrote in her latest issue on Saturday that the portion of the new report that shows the outsized surge in child infections was “particularly striking.”

In the early weeks of school last year, when online attendance was far more common than it is now, the child infection numbers were relatively low: 1,205 cases in a week in late August among kids 11-17, and 413 cases for those aged 5-10. That same week this year, the numbers climbed to 11,908 and 6,640 cases respectively.

Schmidtke pulled data that compared the per capita infection rates for the same two-week period in September this year versus last year: for young adults aged 18-22, the rate rose 38%, she observed. That compares with a 1,245% increase for children aged 5-10.

Schmidtke said the numbers show how the delta variant has changed things for kids, making COVID-19 more infectious just as pandemic-fatigued schools ― and parents ― let their guard down.

Many school districts do not require masks like they did last year, and even in those that do, the students are attending full-time and eating in school, masks down.

“The big thing that we can see from this is that this wave was different because we were not as careful,” Schmidtke said in an interview this week. “It’s an issue of lack of vaccinations and lack of precautions and the fact that delta was there to capitalize on it.”

Georgia public health officials had already revealed last month that newly opened schools were a major infection site, accounting for 60% of outbreaks in the state, with over 100 by mid-September.

Sarah McCool, an associate professor of public health at Georgia State University, said the surge among kids was predictable given how much more infectious the delta variant is. “You bring kids back to school and they’re inside together in close contact; it’s not surprising that it’s spreading,” she said.

McCool wouldn’t speculate on why the age group of kids old enough for vaccination had a higher infection rate this fall than younger school-aged kids who cannot get jabbed, something the data makes clear. She said ongoing DPH reports would help scientists measure the impact of vaccination as more people do get shots and vaccines are authorized for younger children.

The state public health agency said the plan is to publish the reports each Friday. The second installment published on the DPH website late Monday.

It shows a continuing drop in infection rates past the second half of September, with the rate among school-aged children reaching about the same level as adults under age 55.


Comparing the data

The percentage increase in the per capita infection rate for Georgia age groups from the same two weeks of September last year to this year

Ages; Increase

0-4; 785%

5-10; 1,245%

11-17; 516%

18-22; 38%

23-34; 228%

35-54; 242%

55-64; 183%

65+; 147%

SOURCE: Microbiologist Amber Schmidtke from Department of Public Health COVID-19 Age Trends report.