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Some supermarkets are banning children - but does the science back up their reasons?

One experts says that it has not been confirmed yet if children are vectors.

Image: Shutterstock/Syda Productions

A NUMBER OF stores in Ireland have begun to ban or limit the number of children that can enter at any one time due to fears around the spread of coronavirus.

Some of the stores say this is because children are ‘vectors’ for the virus.

The term ‘vector’ can mean “an organism that transmits a pathogen”, and in this case, people are using it to mean that children can pass on the coronavirus to adults. Because studies in China have found that children can in some cases be asymptomatic, the fear is that children who don’t appear to be ill could pass on the virus ‘silently’.

However, regarding children being ‘vectors’, Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory and chair of the HSE’s Coronavirus Expert Advisory Group, told TheJournal.ie that to his knowledge, “we do not yet have data to support that contention in children”.

The government has asked citizens to socially distance in order to help ‘flatten the curve’ of coronavirus transmission, which would put less pressure on the health service. 

Some business owners are keen to impose strict social distancing rules in-store.

One-in-one-out policy

In Supervalu Celbridge, the management is asking people to adhere to a one in, one out policy, and not to bring children inside with the exception of children in buggies or trolleys. A sign in its store says:

In order to adhere to HSE guidelines on safe social distancing this store may at times adopt a one in one out policy so as to limit the numbers in store at any one time.
Please adhere to the follow protocols when visiting this store.
No children at any time as they are vectors for Covid-19 (infants in buggies or shopping trolleys are permitted).

The sign also says it asks for “preferably one shopper per group”.

In a statement, SuperValu said:

SuperValu does not have a store wide policy that children cannot come into stores. We do however, in the interests of the health of our staff and customers, encourage families to limit their visit to one or two people per family where possible.

Nolan’s of Clontarf in Dublin is implementing a ban on children in the store. It tells customers:

1. No children allowed. Children are deemed to be vectors of Covid-19. 2. Only one person per family/group to do shopping unless the second person is assisting. (This does not apply to elderly customers).

On its Facebook page, it said:

Children have always been a very welcome component of family shopping at Nolan’s and will be again, hopefully in the very near future.

It said that it had received a small number of complaints, but added: “This policy is not bias towards children but we will take all necessary precautions, popular and unpopular, to contain the spread of this virus.”

It’s reasoning, it said, was based on comments by Dr Muireann Ní Chrónín, consultant respiratory paediatrician at Cork University Hospital, who said in a message which circulated widely on social media that “remember with corona children are vectors, not victims”. She said that children will “give it to each other silently and pass it on to our loved ones” and that parents should avoid situations where children will interact.

TheJournal.ie asked Dr Cillian De Gascun about the claim that children can act as ‘vectors’ for Covid-19. He said that:

At present, it seems that this claim is being based on the situation with influenza: i.e. they provide a reservoir for infection and infect others. To my knowledge, we do not yet have data to support that contention in children.
To clarify, I’m not saying it couldn’t be true: just that I don’t think we have sufficient evidence to support the claim.

So as with a lot to do with this novel coronavirus and Covid-19, there is still much that is unknown – children could be vectors, but this has not been fully confirmed.

Related to this, the country’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn was recently asked about the risk of playdates for children. His advice highlighted the emphasis on social distancing when it comes to young people.

“What we’ve said is if children still continue to mix with other children in the way that they would normally do, then the measures we have recommended and taken this week won’t be as effective as we want them to be.

“But our recommendations are not absolutist. Children still need to have a normal life, we recognise that, so children will still play with other children. What we are asking though in as much as it is possible, whether they’re adults or children, reduce their level of discretionary social contacts.”

As parents know, adults are generally more able to regulate their behaviour and spread of the droplets that contain the virus. It can be harder to stop children doing things that can put them in the way of droplets, or spreading the droplets themselves through coughing or sneezing.

For now, individual stores may be banning children from entering, though there is no solid evidence that children are definitively vectors for Covid-19. However, limiting the number of people in a building does fit within the social distancing guidelines.

Individual parents might also make the decision that their children are better off staying away from indoor public areas. However, some might be unable to go into a shop without their children, so banning children in stores could pose a major issue for some families.

SPARK Ireland, which works with single-parent families, said:

“We appreciate that social distancing must be adhered to and children should only be out for essential journeys. This complete ban though excludes lone parent families from shopping. It is really positive that many shops are arranging designated times to allow older and vulnerable people to shop, however, to exclude our families from shopping shows how little consideration is given to the barriers lone-parent families face. Businesses need to factor in all citizens when making contingency plans for COVID19.”

When it comes to how Covid-19 affects children, there are some initial reports coming out of China which suggest that children do not tend to have symptoms as severe as adults.

study published in Paediatrics journal, which looked at over 2,143 young people in China said that:

Children at all ages were susceptible to COVID-19, but no significant gender difference was found. Clinical manifestations of pediatric patients were generally less severe than those of adults’ patients. However, young children, particularly infants, were vulnerable to 2019-nCoV infection [Covid-19].

Another study carried out by the Chinese Pediatric Novel Coronavirus Study Team found that:

In contrast with infected adults, most infected children appear to have a milder clinical course. Asymptomatic infections were not uncommon.

The study authors said that: “Determination of the transmission potential of these asymptomatic patients is important for guiding the development of measures to control the ongoing pandemic.”

Like everything with Covid-19, there is still a lot to discover about this coronavirus – and work on that is ongoing.

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