PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The number of young Rhode Islanders testing positive for COVID-19 climbed recently, but so far not one has been hospitalized, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.
As of Monday morning, 48 children under 10 years old have been diagnosed with the virus, with another 147 under 20 bringing the total in those age brackets to 195. But according to the the R.I. Department of Health, while the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has topped 200 since April 12, no one under 20 has needed hospital care.
According to Kent Hospital neonatologist and pediatrics director Dr. Nicholas G. Guerina, a few newborns are among the children who tested positive.
“There were some suggestions that infants under 1 year of age could be negatively impacted,” Guerina said. “A few newborns tested positive in Rhode Island, but they did fine.”
Bryant University science and technology professor Kirsten Hokeness said the local results for people under 20 follow the international trend of coronavirus impacting the older population more severely.
“It’s not necessarily a surprise,” Hokeness said.
She added that it offers an opportunity to better understand how the disease works, with one theory aimed at the number or strength of “receptors” in the young versus the old.
The virus “unlocks” the receptors in order to infect the body, Hokeness explained.
“So it’s a possibility that the level of the degree of the receptor changes over time,” Hokeness said. “And so if children have less of that receptor, less of that lock, the virus won’t be able to infect to the great degree that it does in older adults.”
Hokeness also expects research to focus on the difference in immune systems among various age groups.
“Is there a level of immune fatigue that older individuals are displaying where their immune system is not kept in check as well as it is for children?” Hokeness said. “Is that what tips the scale for older individuals and the impact on their respiratory system?”
Hokeness said answers to those and other questions are many months away.
Hokeness and Guerina agreed COVID-19 is behaving differently than its viral cousin SARS or influenza — both of which attack younger as well as older patients more severely.
“For some reason, this virus is not impacting our younger population,” Guerina said. “That’s not to say they can’t get sick. It’s just been much less of a problem from children all the way down to infants.”
Guerina said the one similarity with all age groups including children is underlying health conditions will often make the infection worse.
According to Department of Health data, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths start to climb sharply with patients in their 50s, with 79% of the confirmed cases and nearly all of the fatalities involving Rhode Islanders who were 50 or older.
Since the state’s first confirmed case on March 1, Rhode Islanders ages 20 to 49 make up 21% of the total hospitalized, with 3% in their 20s, 5% in their 30s and 13% in their 40s.