New research suggests that daycare centers are low-risk places for coronavirus transmission. In the study, which Yale University researchers released on October 14 in Pediatrics, childcare providers who kept working through the pandemic were not more at risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus than those who did not.
The researchers asked over 57,000 childcare workers in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico whether they stayed open during the pandemic, whether they had to close at any point due to a suspected or confirmed case, what kind of safety measures they implemented, and how staff protected themselves during non-work hours. About half of the respondents (48.6%) said the centers they worked for remained open during the pandemic or closed and then reopened.
In total, of the 57,335 childcare workers in the study, only 427 reported testing positive for COVID-19 or being hospitalized because of the virus. Walter Gilliam, Ph.D., the Yale professor who led the study’s research team, told the Los Angeles Times that the researchers found “absolutely no relationship” between working in childcare and risk of contracting the virus.
Children are less likely to get sick with coronavirus than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That makes childcare workers “a good measuring stick” of how likely coronavirus spread is in these settings, Gilliam told the Los Angeles Times.
The most common precautions staffers took were frequent handwashing and daily disinfection, though screening for symptoms, avoiding mixing toys between groups, and social distancing were also popular. The study found that just 11.8% of centers reported children older than two wearing masks every day, and just 35.2% of staff members wearing masks every day. Most facilities reported group sizes of eight or fewer children.
Personal choices the childcare workers made outside of the childcare centers, like traveling, eating at restaurants, or gathering with family members, were associated with a higher risk of getting COVID-19. The study also, unsurprisingly, found that American Indian/Alaskan Native, Latinx, and African American people were all at greater risk. That risk was not associated with the childcare facilities themselves and instead came down to the other systemic factors that have led to COVID-19 disproportionately impacting people of color.
“The childcare setting itself did not contribute to the disparities in race that we see in COVID-19, but there are disparities in communities in which our providers live that do,” Gilliam told the Los Angeles Times.
Most of the children attending the childcare centers that remained open were under six years old (81.1%), and researchers emphasized the results don’t automatically apply to K-12 or university students, where the environment is much different than childcare programs.
Even more importantly, since community transmission remained a major factor in childcare providers testing positive, these facilities should only be open when community spread is low or decreasing, the researchers wrote—even though the centers themselves don’t appear to be hotspots for COVID-19 spread.
The researchers acknowledge the limitations of the study. First, it focused exclusively on the infection rate of childcare providers and did not account for child-to-child transmission or adult-to-child. The researchers note that adults transmitting the virus to children seems more likely than the reverse and is a reason why childcare workers should consistently wear masks around kids. Second, as it was a survey, respondents needed to have a known infection to count as a positive case—if they had the virus but were asymptomatic, for instance, they wouldn’t count. For that reason, the study has probably underestimated the true positive number to some degree.
Last, the information researchers gathered for the study was from the spring of 2020—fall and winter could prove to have different risk factors as the virus continues to spread.
The takeaway, then, is that childcare facilities don’t appear to put childcare workers at increased risk. But how seriously your community in general takes precautions—like wearing a mask, avoiding gatherings, and physically distancing—continues to be key.
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