WEST FARGO — Six-year-old Aurora Stubson was the first member of her family to test positive for COVID-19.
She developed upper respiratory symptoms on the evening of Oct. 1, and a rapid test on Oct. 3 indicated she had COVID-19.
Her 3-year-old sister, Estelle, tested negative on Oct. 3, but tested positive the next day. So far, brother Gabriel, 8, has not come down with an infection.
Fortunately, the children’s symptoms have been mild, according to their father, Adam Stubson. “It’s mostly just been coughs,” he said. “They’ve had some low-grade fevers. So far we’ve been lucky.”
Children have made up a greater proportion of COVID-19 infections since the delta wave began this summer. During seven days ending Sunday, Oct. 10, North Dakota reported 1,011 active COVID-19 cases in children, who accounted for 27% of 3,736 active cases during the week.
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, kids accounted for 19.5% of all COVID-19 cases, illustrating how the share of infections among children has grown.
Cases are spreading rapidly among children because those under 12 aren’t eligible for vaccination and schools are doing a much poorer job of mitigating transmission, such as requiring masks to be worn indoors, said Dr. Stephen McDonough, a retired Bismarck pediatrician and former senior official in the North Dakota Department of Health.
“You’ve got this vicious cycle going on now,” he said. Because few public schools outside of Fargo, Grand Forks and the American Indian reservations require masks, and young children aren’t vaccinated, the virus is spreading unchecked, he said.
“The virus basically has got open season,” McDonough added.
In turn, children who are infected at school carry the virus home, spreading it to family members, one of the factors driving the delta spike, he said.
The Stubsons believe Aurora was infected in her kindergarten classroom at Brooks Harbor Elementary School in West Fargo. A classmate tested positive on Sept. 30, the day before Aurora, but the family wasn’t notified by school officials until days later, on Oct. 4.
“We’re almost 100% positive it was at the school,” Adam Stubson said. After learning on Oct. 3 that his daughter had COVID-19, Stubson emailed a school official and the parents of her classmates.
The class was shut down on Oct. 4, the day the school sent out notices, Stubson said. He said he heard from three other parents their children were positive, and also was informed the classroom teacher tested positive.
If the family had been notified sooner, Stubson said, they wouldn't have allowed their children to visit their grandparents, exposing them to the risk of infection. The grandparents were fully vaccinated and didn’t get infected, Stubson said.
A spokeswoman for West Fargo Public Schools said Brooks Harbor notified parents of the outbreak as soon as the infections were confirmed by the North Dakota Department of Health.
Health officials notified the school district of one positive COVID-19 case on Oct. 1 from Aurora Stubson’s classroom, said Heather Leas, the district’s director of health, safety and public relations. The health department notices go out after they interview families, she said.
A second notice was received by the district on Oct. 4, Leas said. “As soon as we received notice of those additional cases from (the state Department of Health) and determined the potential for classroom spread, a plan for the continued education of those students was developed and then we communicated with families,” Leas said in a statement.
Stubson said West Fargo schools would be better off if they followed the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as pediatricians, and required masks in school. Unlike public schools in Fargo and Moorhead, which require masks, West Fargo Public Schools allows parents to decide whether their children should wear masks in school.
“There would have been less transmission had everyone been wearing masks,” Stubson said. He sends his children to school with masks and instructs them to keep them on, but isn’t sure how well they comply in classrooms where, at least anecdotally, the vast majority of students are unmasked, Stubson said.
“I don’t understand how everything has become such a polarized issue,” Stubson, who is a pharmacist, said of the controversy surrounding public health guidance, such as vaccination and mask usage.
Since Aurora tested positive, the Stubson children have been home in isolation. Amanda Stubson has been tutoring the children. “It has fallen to my wife to try to help them keep up with what they’ve been missing,” Adam Stubson said.
Amanda has been the latest of the Stubsons to test positive for COVID-19, a development she posted Sunday on Facebook.
“And after a week of quarantine with two covid-positive kids, of course, I’ve now got it,” she wrote. “Great, just great. At least, since I’m fully vaccinated, I’ll hopefully avoid really severe symptoms and the hospital.”
Her early symptoms included a sore throat, congestion and headache. “This is real,” she added, “get your vaccine.”
Fortunately, according to McDonough and Dr. Melissa Horner, a pediatrician at Sanford Health in Fargo, children usually have mild cases of COVID-19. But a few children, including a child at Sanford Children’s Hospital in the past week or so, have required ventilation and intensive care.
“It shouldn’t be forgotten that some get very sick,” Horner said.
Vaccines have proven effective, and many hope emergency authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for children 5 to 11 will come soon, she said.
Meanwhile, community members can help those children who aren’t yet eligible for vaccination by wearing masks in public indoors and by getting vaccinated, Horner said.
“These kids really took huge sacrifices in the last year or two,” including being outside the classroom for long periods to help control the spread. Now, she said, people must help protect children.
As of Monday, state health officials reported that four children were hospitalized over the past six days. Since the pandemic began, 117 children have been hospitalized in North Dakota and one 17-year-old girl has died from COVID-19.
If any children were transferred to hospitals outside the state, the number could be higher, McDonough said.
Forty-four new child COVID-19 cases were reported Monday, and so far a total of 26,946 child cases have been reported in North Dakota.
Infection rates among children are much higher in western North Dakota than in the eastern part of the state, McDonough said. The seven-day case rate per 100,000 population ranged from 560.2 in Billings County, which includes Medora, to 9.3 in Pembina County, which includes Pembina, according to McDonough’s calculations.
The average for North Dakota was 78.1. Any rate greater than 25 is considered out-of-control spread. Cases in children have grown 13-fold over the past 2½ months, showing exponential growth, he said.
7-day case rates for children in selected North Dakota counties:
Barnes (Valley City), 120.9
Burleigh (Bismarck), 109.5
Morton (Mandan), 101.0
Richland (Wahpeton), 91.5
Stutsman (Jamestown), 81.7
Cass (Fargo and West Fargo), 71.4
Ward (Minot), 71.1
Williams (Williston), 58.1
Ramsey (Devils Lake), 57.6
Grand Forks, 40
Rates are per 100,000 population. Source: North Dakota Department of Health, Dr. Stephen McDonough