What are the chances that your child already had COVID and you just didn’t know it?

When I contracted a breakthrough COVID infection in December, at the height of the omicron outbreak in New York, I was certain to pass it on to my two young children. One is old enough to be vaccinated; the other no. We live in a small two bedroom apartment and have been stuck together for 10 days.

Amazingly, none of my children tested positive. It could have to do with the fact that household transmission is not a given. Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that during the omicron wave, 1 in 2 household contacts developed COVID-19 – a high risk of infection, but not inevitable.

But it also seems possible that my kids didn’t get sick because they had already developed immunity from a previous infection that my husband and I just weren’t aware of.

I’m particularly skeptical that my 3-year-old has really made it through the past two years unscathed. He was home with us for a long time at the start of the pandemic, but eventually returned to daycare and then kindergarten, where his masking was halfhearted at best.

So what are the odds that my kids — or yours — had COVID at some point in the pandemic and you just didn’t know about it? Here’s what the latest research says.

New data suggests that asymptomatic spread has been really widespread – especially among children.

The CDC recently released new estimates that suggest that at the end of January this year, approximately 140,000,000 Americans were infected with COVID-19. That’s about 43% of the US population.

This estimate comes from more than 70,000 blood samples tested in January specifically for antibodies generated after COVID-19 infection. Known as a seroprevalence survey, this research estimates the percentage of people in a population who have antibodies against something infectious – in this case, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. .

Notably, the estimate of 140,000,000 found by the CDC is about double what the number of verified cases suggests, meaning millions of people in this country have had COVID without knowing it.

And the infection rate in children appears to be even higher. Recent data from the CDC revealed that 58% of children up to age 17 have COVID antibodies.

It makes sense. The children were in school during the omicron wave, and this variant is much more contagious than the previous ones. Children also tend to have milder symptoms than adults, so their parents and caregivers may simply not know they were infected.

There is no way for most parents to reliably test whether their child has been infected.

While using antibody tests to get a broad, population-level estimate of how many people have COVID can be a valuable public health tool, it’s not as useful individually.

“[Antibody testing] is done primarily through blood sampling, but several kits are also available for finger sampling,” Dr. Kelly Fradin, pediatrician and author of “Parenting in a Pandemic,” told HuffPost. The CDC advises people to contact their doctor to find out if they need it.

“In particular, if your child had COVID months ago, or had a mild case of COVID, the antibodies generated could have come and gone before you took the test. As a result, a test is limited in its ability to tell you about a previous infection.

And that’s one of the reasons why seroprevalence surveys can only really offer estimates, not exact numbers, of how many people have had COVID over a certain period of time.

Of course, there are different considerations for children who are immunocompromised or have underlying medical conditions. In these cases, health care providers can be very attentive to signs of possible COVID infection in addition to tracking antibody levels after vaccination.

It is still unclear how long “natural” immunity lasts.

Not only can antibody tests miss previous infections based on how much time has passed, but there are also bigger questions about how long someone is immune to COVID after being infected with it.

Most experts think you (or your child) are protected against COVID for at least three months — possibly up to six — after an infection, but that’s really a better guess. And recent data from the Netherlands suggests that some people infected with the original omicron variant, BA.1, were infected with the new omicron variant, BA.2, less than two months after their initial infection. .

Fradin noted that at some point, as we learn more about the long-term impact of COVID on things like heart health, experts may want to know if children have been infected so that they can, for example, screen them before participating in sports. But that’s just a hypothetical scenario at this point.

For now, given the limitations of antibody testing — as well as the fact that no one really knows how much COVID infection protects children after catching the virus — it doesn’t matter that my kids have had COVID until ‘now.

If you’re wondering how to make certain decisions about your child’s activities over the next few months as omicron continues to roll back and mask mandates and other restrictions disappear, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They may not be able to tell you for sure if your child has ever had COVID, but they can help you figure out how to move forward in a way that’s right for your family.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available at the time of publication, but advice may change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most current recommendations.


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