How to explain COVID-19 to kids

by / Jan 01, 2023


This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About COVID-19, Malia Jones. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 




What is COVID-19?


COVID-19 is a disease. It's a new disease to humans that started circulating in humans sometime at the end of 2019. It's caused by a virus. The virus is called SARS-CoV-2. And when you get sick from it the disease you get is called COVID-19. 




Today we’re going beyond the basics, getting down and dirty (or maybe down and snotty?) about what COVID-19 is, how it spreads, who it affects, and how you can help.


COVID-19 spreads through what are called respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets is basically a science-y word for little pieces of snot and spit that come flying out of your mouth when you breathe or sneeze or sing or shout. And if someone who is sick with COVID-19 spews those respiratory droplets out at you and you accidentally breathe them in, then you can get sick.   



It's gross! This is actually how a lot of diseases spread, not just COVID-19. So if you think that's gross, just think about all the, all the colds and little bugs that you get every, every year when you're in school.


The other question that I get constantly is, “Can you get it from surfaces?” Like if I touch something and then later somebody else comes and touches the same door knob or keyboard or book. Some diseases do spread like that, but COVID-19 almost never does. And that's something we didn't really know at the beginning when I wrote the book. If you remember a year ago, there was a ton of emphasis on handwashing. 


Handwashing is still important because you also don't want to get all those other diseases, but that mainly COVID-19 happens because you're sharing air with another person. Not because you're sharing books with them. 


Now that you know how people get it, let’s talk about what it looks like for someone to have COVID-19.


So sometimes when people get COVID 19, they don't feel anything. They have no symptoms at all. And their immune systems respond to it really quickly and help to, uh, fight the virus in your body. And you don't ever feel it. Other times when people get COVID 19, they get a little sniffle, they have a headache, they feel fevery for a few days, you know, it's very similar to some other little virus that you might pick up at school. 


But sometimes, and this is especially true for people who are older, uh, when they get COVID-19, they get, um, it becomes really hard to breathe. It affects their lungs and they have to go to the hospital in order to get support for, um, breathing. So they get extra oxygen and in really severe cases, they actually have to get a machine to help them breathe. And that, that is called a respirator and that's something that would happen in the hospital. So, you know, there's a huge range of what it's like to have COVID-19.  


In most cases it's something like having a little flu or the cold and especially for kids. 


And while most people with COVID-19 recover, many do not. In the US, over 500 thousand people have died from COVID-19. And around the world? Two and a half million lives lost. Worse, data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that People of Color and Native American communities are experiencing higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 than white populations. 


If you do get that sick that you need to be in the hospital, we don't have a medicine that specifically treats this disease. All we can do for people is just try to help them keep breathing and that doesn't always work. And so when people die of COVID-19 it's because their lungs have failed. They're not able to breathe anymore because the virus has kind of taken over. 


And unfortunately we just don't have a specific medicine that we could give people, you know, like if you get strep throat, um, there's a specific medicine called an antibiotic that will treat that and you'll get better from strep throat right away. We don't have a medicine like that for COVID-19 yet. 




We received so many questions for Malia that today we’re hearing from three listeners. Our first question is as follows.  


Kid Question 1: How long will it take for everyone to get the vaccine?


Yeah, this is a very astute question and the truth is scientists just do not know how long it will take for everyone to get the vaccine. Right now, the problem is that we don't have enough vaccines to give everyone and we're starting with the oldest age groups because, like I said before, those are the people who are the most likely to get really sick from COVID-19.


We don't even have a vaccine for kids approved yet, and probably we won't have one approved for kids until the first part of next year. Or at least young kids—kids under age 12. And so, you know, for everyone to get the vaccine who wants one, including kids, I would say it's going to take at least a year. 


The other problem we have though is that there are a lot of people out there who don't think the vaccines are a good idea. They're worried about the vaccines. Because they're new or because they're not sure what's in them or because they've heard some bad information about them. And so I think we also have a real challenge with people who don't want to get the vaccines, even if one were available to them.


We did have some really good news just over the weekend that there's a new vaccine coming available called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And this one is great because it only requires one dose. You don't have to take two shots and you can keep it in a regular temperature refrigerator.


It doesn't need some super special ultra cold refrigerator, which means that it's easier to get out to places that don't have freezers that keep things at negative 80 degrees. So that will really help with worldwide distribution.



Kid Question 2: When will it stop? 


Yeah, that's the question that everybody wants to know. I'm hopeful that we're going to get things under control and get back to something that looks a little more like normal by sometime this summer into the fall here in the United States and probably in Europe, too. A lot of that depends on these mutations and the variants that are going around. And a lot of it depends on how fast we can get vaccines to be available and also convince people that the vaccines really are a good idea. So fingers crossed by fall we'll have something that looks more like regular life. I don't think it will be a hundred percent normal. I think we're all going to be wearing masks for a while, especially in school. And at least until we get kids covered with the vaccine too.


Kid Question 3: Do trees get sick from it?


Plants cannot get sick from COVID-19. We've had a few cases where another kind of pet animal has gotten COVID-19. There've been a few dogs and cats. There've been a few tigers in zoos and gorillas in zoos. But mostly it's just people who get COVID-19. 


The one type of animal that seems really susceptible to this disease are in the weasel family. So if you have a pet ferret, then you really should be careful around your pet ferret because they can get it. But most animals are very unlikely to get it and no plant could possibly get it, including trees.



Thank you to Malia Jones, author of A Kids Book About COVID-19, for joining us today. 




Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with Malia Jones, a social epidemiologist—a scientist and researcher that studies how viruses spread in populations—and author of A Kids Book About COVID-19.