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No need to close schools despite kids' rising case rates, say experts

The proportion of children among all infections is statistically small and contact teaching has little impact.

The number of infections among children has not been significantly decreased by distance learning. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

While the number of coronavirus infections among children and adolescents has been low throughout the pandemic, cases have been on the rise, especially in the Helsinki metropolitan area.

Even so, Professor Harri Saxén, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District, says it is worthwhile continuing contact teaching.

"Closing schools is not an effective way to reduce infections. This has been found all over the world and everywhere it is considered a last resort," Saxén said in an Yle TV interview on Friday morning.

According to Saxén, the increase in the number of infections in children and younger people is in part a reflection of the general increase in infections among the entire population. Another reason is increased testing of children amid concerns about new virus variants.

Saxén told Yle that one-third of children and adolescents who test positive for the coronavirus have been asymptomatic.

However, serious viral infections in children have not increased in the Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District. There is also no clear increase in infections among school teachers or daycare personnel, which, according to Saxén, indicates that the problem of the spread is somewhere other than in schools.

The highest number of infections during the epidemic in Finland has been recorded among 20-29 year olds. The proportion of children and adolescents with coronavirus infections is statistically small, and there are few infections in schools. According to health authorities, the few outbreaks that have been seen in schools have often introduced by an infected adult.

The reason why the coronavirus seems to spread more slowly among children and adolescents is not known.

Adults still the main carriers

A study conducted in Pirkanmaa in the autumn revealed that there were few infections in schools and children's hobby groups in the region.

“The role of children in the spread of the virus in our data in the autumn was very small, but the situation has now changed a bit and their share as a source of infection now corresponds to their share of our population," explains Jaana Syrjänen, chief physician of the infection unit at Tampere University Hospital.

The main carriers of the virus are still people aged 20-59. The proportion they represent as a source of infection is significantly higher than their share of the general population.

Even so, earlier this month all the children's group hobbies in Pirkanmaa were put on break for three weeks.

According to Syrjänen, children's group hobby activities have rarely been a source of infection, and when they have, the virus has often been introduced by an adult.

"In our opinion, school attendance is a primary right of children and young people. So, we wanted to calm the situation," Syrjänen says.

She also points out that the number of infections among children and adolescents has not been significantly decreased by distance learning. Half of children and young people who do pick up the virus get infected at home by their parents, while a third of infections among 10-19 year olds have come from indoor group hobbies.

Syrjänen supports a broad return to contact teaching. She points out that the use of face masks, for example, significantly reduces the risk of exposure and high schools are less crowded now that final year students have already ended classes.

the chief physican adds that it should also be kept in mind that that young people in vocational education cannot learn their professions remotely, nor will many of them be able to telecommute in the jobs they are preparing for.

"Now it would be good to learn safe ways to work. For this age group, this is not likely to be the last respiratory infection pandemic they will have to deal with during their careers," Syrjänen predicts.

Both Syrjänen and Saxén also argue that the past year has been hard on young people. If children and young people are not allowed to see their friends in a school where physical contact can be controlled through masks and adult supervision, children are more likely to see their friends outside of school, where infection tracing becomes more difficult.