Fact check: Congressman says flu worse for kids than COVID-19

Posted November 1, 2021 1:29 p.m. EDT
Updated November 1, 2021 5:36 p.m. EDT

Perhaps the struggle among school districts over how to deal with COVID-19 this academic year is best encapsulated by the neighboring districts of Marshfield and Wausau.

Marshfield is mandating masks in schools. Wausau isn’t. But both faced similar pushback and protests from parents and others.

Before the school year began, U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who represents the area, posted a video on Twitter on Aug. 8, 2021 that came firmly down in support of local control.

But it also included a claim about the safety of kids in schools that remains relevant.

Citing experts, Tiffany claimed "the seasonal cold and flu is actually more dangerous for kids than the coronavirus" and that "there is very low transmissibility from children to their families and to their communities."

Is he right?

This year is different than last year

When asked for backup, Tiffany’s staff said he based his claim on an October 2020 article from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, a self-labeled non-partisan think tank whose board is comprised of Republican party insiders, which found that those under the age of 15 were at significantly lower risk of death from COVID-19 than of the flu.

But a year has passed, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that is no longer the case. Remember, in October 2020 the flu season was only ramping up, and COVID had really emerged in March of that year, toward the end of the flu season.

A 2020 CDC report detailing the differences between COVID-19 and the flu stated that "the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19." But a June 2021 study showed children are more frequently being hospitalized with COVID-19 than the flu.

In the more recent report, researchers compared the numbers for COVID-19 and flu hospitalizations for those ages 12 to 17. From Oct. 1, 2020, to April 24, 2021, hospitalization rates nationwide for COVID among adolescents were 2.5 to 3 times higher than for seasonal flu in previous years.

In Wisconsin, there has been a similar shift to more COVID cases among youth:

Flu hospitalizations: Between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sep. 18, 2021, there were only two influenza-associated hospitalizations reported in Wisconsin among those up to 17 years old, according to data from the state health department.

COVID hospitalizations: In contrast, there have been 1,440 COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalizations among those between up to 19 years old reported in Wisconsin as of Sep. 27, 2021.

The same pattern is seen in the death numbers.

There were no influenza-associated pediatric deaths reported in Wisconsin between Oct. 1, 2020, and Sep. 18, 2021 in those up to age 17. There have been three COVID-19 deaths among those up to 19 as of Sep. 27, 2021.

It’s important to note the datasets for the two viruses don’t align perfectly, said Elizabeth Goodsitt, a spokesperson with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

"We can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison as the dates and age groups are not exactly the same," Goodsitt said.

But the difference between the two categories — and the two years — is striking. And it underscores that Tiffany was using outdated information in his claim.

Transmissibility in schools dependent on many variables

In a September 2020 factcheck of a flu vs. COVID claim, we noted that the flu was able to spread through children more commonly than COVID-19, creating more cases, more complications and more deaths.

But when it comes to transmissibility, there is another key change this year: The emergence of the highly contagious delta variant.

According to his staff, Tiffany based his low-transmissibility statement on an August 2020 article in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics called "COVID-19 Transmission and Children: The Child Is Not to Blame."

The article uses data from schools in China, France and Australia in 2020 and found COVID transmission in schools may be "less important in community transmission than initially feared."

Although outbreaks in schools can occur, both Goodsitt and studies from the CDC said that transmission within school settings is typically lower than — or at least similar to — levels of community transmission, when prevention strategies are in place in schools.

That last part is important because it could vary from district to district based on whether there is a mask mandate (as in Marshfield) or no mask-mandate (as in Wausau).

Additionally, the CDC says if community transmission is high and community vaccination level is low, students and staff are more likely to come to school while infectious and introduce COVID-19 into the schools.

So, while Tiffany is more on track with that part of his claim, it’s much more complicated than he suggests.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: Mostly False

Tiffany claimed "The seasonal cold and flu is actually more dangerous for kids than the Coronavirus" and "there is very low transmissibility between from children to their families and communities."

The first part of the claim uses outdated information, and the situation is now the opposite of what Tiffany said. Meanwhile, though the level of transmissibility from schools to families and the community may generally be low, the situation is more complicated than presented. Much depends on the level of spread in the community, how many adults are vaccinated and what mitigation measures are in place.

For a statement that contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, our rating is Mostly False.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.