As 1.3 million schoolchildren return to classes this Autumn all over Greece, as many as 50,000 Greek teenagers aged 12-18 may contract Covid-19 over the next months, according to one expert.
Nikos Tzanakis, a respiratory disease expert who is the vice president of the Hellenic Thoracic Society, told interviewers on Mega TV that people are so susceptible to the burgeoning Delta variant of the virus that as many as 50,000 youngsters could be infected this Fall.
While schools across Greece have reopened, students are not required to be inoculated, although all those 12 and up can receive the vaccine if they so choose. Tzanakis stated there are 730,000-750,000 children in that cohort; up to 200,000 of them could be exposed to the coronavirus in school settings, according to his calculations.
Teenagers returning to school as Covid-19 situation worsens
There are also a total of 140,000 teachers who have resumed teaching across the country; they are required to either show proof of vaccination, test negative for the virus or show proof of antibodies against the virus, according to a ruling that was issued in July.
Meanwhile, officials from the New Democracy government have declared that if half a school is infected with the virus, the school will be closed.
“According to conservative estimates, 25 percent, that is approximately 30,000 to 50,000 children, will be infected,” Tzanakis stated, adding that if this comes to pass, he estimates that this would mean that between 300-500 would be hospitalized.
He then urged parents to get their teenagers vaccinated as soon as possible. “I don’t want to scare anybody here, but parents should be aware of these figures,” Tzanakis warned.
Meanwhile, there is no sign that Greece’s anti-vaxxer community is paying any attention to any such urgings, despite repeated government advisories and warnings.
Serious complications from vaccination 1 in 500,000
Tzanakis noted “They should know that chances of serious complications from vaccination are one in 500,000,” he stated, maintaining that vaccination is the only way to go to avoid widespread infection — not just for teenagers who are worried about contracting Covid-19.
All around the world last year, online teaching was the norm, as schools were kept shut during lockdowns. Now, over 65.8% of Greeks now having at least the first dose of a vaccine, and 63.4% of the population is fully immunized.
With so many Greek citizens inoculated overall, the Greek government decided that it was safe to conduct normal school operations for 2021/2022 — as long as stringent measures are in place.
However, even if large numbers of teenagers do become positive for the virus, children as a whole do not become nearly as sick with the virus as adults do.
Although some children have been hospitalized — and some have even died from Covid-19 — they represent a tiny fraction of the adults who have become sick with the virus. Scientists all over the world are trying to find out just why that is.
Many factors make teenagers less susceptible to severe Covid-19
While evidence is complicated by the emergence of new variants — especially the Delta variant, which has proven to be much more virulent than the original virus and all other mutations so far — researchers are beginning to reconcile biological data and behaviors that could explain just why children almost always are less affected by Covid-19.
Children are, by any measure, far less likely to become severely ill from the virus. According to information released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 400 youngsters under 18 have died of the disease in the US as of the last week of August, out of a national population of over 325 million people.
In addition, twenty-four states and New York City reported findings showing that just 0.1 percent to 1.9 percent of children and teenagers who tested positive for Covid-19 have needed to be hospitalized.
Perhaps most encouragingly, a recent UK study found that only 1.8 percent of children with Covid-19 still experienced symptoms two months after infection.
While children have accounted for nearly 15 percent of all Covid-19 cases in the US since the start of the pandemic, this metric is rising steeply as the Delta variant rages across the country. As of August 26, they make up approximately 22.4 percent of cases in the nation.
Crucially, there is no proof that the Delta variant is more dangerous to children in and of itself — but the situation is worrisome just because vaccines are not yet available for children under 12.
Public health restrictions have been loosened at a time when children all over the world are returning to school, and delta has proven to be much more contagious than other variants– with some researchers positing that it is 244% more contagious than the original virus.
Doing the week of August 24 to August 30, an average of 350 youngsters under 18 were hospitalized every day; because children’s hospitals are much smaller than general hospitals, such institutions in some states have now run out of beds.
Why are Children more Resilient Against the Virus?
Part of the reason why children have proven to be much more resilient against the virus may be due to their more superior overall health compared to adults, with children and teens less likely to have complicating conditions like obesity and diabetes.
These conditions greatly increase the likelihood of contracting severe Covid-19.
But researchers have now found fascinating differences in the biology of children versus adults as well, leading to their much greater ability too fight off severe disease.
The nasal passages of young people appear to contain less of the receptor called “ACE2” which the coronavirus employs to make its way into cells; moreover, their airway cells have differences that may enable them to detect the virus much earlier than do adults’ cells.
Another wrinkle is that children have less developed immune systems; they have been exposed to fewer pathogens than adults have. This usually means that they have less, not more, ability to fight off new diseases.
Children less susceptible to cytokine storms
But the opposite has proven itself to be true when it comes to Covid-19.
Severe cases of the coronavirus, and deaths associated with it, are believed to be caused not by the coronavirus itself but by an inflammatory overreaction that occurs when the immune system itself attacks the lungs. Known as a “cytokine storm,” this happens less in children than it does in adults.
In many ways, which have been the subject of much ongoing study, the immune systems of children are fundamentally different from adults.
In a fascinating discovery, children were found to have more “naive” versions of T cells than adults; these are immunity cells which are tailored to recognize specific pathogens. When someone has reached their their 30s, their naive cells will have come across many pathogens; this makes them into “memory” T cells, which can respond much more quickly if they encounter the same or a similar pathogen in the future.
However, as we grow older, out production of naive cells slows down — so when a new virus such as Covid-19 is presented, adults dot have as many of these specialist cells to identify and respond to them.
As immunologist Donna Farber of Columbia University explains, “For kids, that’s all they have. In some ways, they’re a lot more adapted to see a new pathogen.”
Schools have proven to be safe havens
But there may be an even more important reason why younger people have proven to be more resistant to Covid-19 than adults. The innate immune systems of children, including macrophages and neutrophils, that respond to all infections- even such as those contracted when we skin our knees- are much more abundant earlier in life.
These workhorses of the immune system engulf and destroy what they see as foreign bodies. These “first responders” of the immune system — which are much less efficient later in life — take care of much of the virus before any other specialized calls even have to be activated.
In addition, as well as enabling children to experience Covid019 in a much ales severe way, the speed at which their immune systems fight off the disease means that they have less of the viral load to pass on to others.
Researchers in Iceland — which has made a concerted effort to track each and every coronavirus case in the nation — found that all those over 16 years old were nearly 60 percent more infectious than were children.
There have also been many studies that show that schools do not function as a major source of transmission of Covid-19. Danny Benjamin, an epidemiologist at Duke University in North Carolina, states in a report in Smithsonian Magazine that as long as masks are worn, schools are among the safest of all public buildings.
However, the more virulent Delta variant has altered this rosy picture, according to some scientists. The highly transmissible mutation, which reaches levels that are 1,000 times higher than those of the original strain in air samples, replicates much faster in the body, leading to the greater viral load.
Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist at Deakin University in Australia, says “Whatever advantage kids had is now overwhelmed by larger infecting doses. Everything is changing, and the virus is changing,” she says.