Around the end of December, Kai, a high school student on the West Coast, came down with a bad bug.
“I had a sore throat, a severe cough, pain in my abdominal region, a hard time breathing, and a high fever,” Kai, who asked to use only that name for fear of provoking his parents’ anger in an already tense relationship, told The Daily Beast.
His worst symptoms eventually faded, but he still “felt extremely weak for weeks after,” as he put it. His doctors weren’t sure what to make of the illness at the time. But as awareness of COVID-19 spread in the U.S. this spring, Kai and his family agreed that he may have come down with an early case. So he eventually decided he wanted to get an antibody test—“to know if I did have it, and to see if there was some way I could help.”
Epidemiologists are always eager for every scrap of data they can get, and a case like Kai’s could help them learn more about the way the virus spread early on, or its long-term effects in adolescents.
But when he raised the idea with his parents, Kai recalled, they shut him down.
“They don’t believe COVID-19 is a huge issue,” he explained, adding that they hold some nebulous opposition to testing that he has not fully grasped.
Without their approval, Kai doesn’t know if or how he can get tested—after all, his parents heavily mediate his medical care, even sitting in on his doctor’s appointments. And he’s reluctant to broach the topic with them again, he said, “because I know it will always be a ‘no,’ and if I keep asking, they’ll just get upset with me.”
Kai’s story is hardly unique. A number of teens have taken to social media in recent months to vent frustrations and seek help after, they claim, their parents tell them they can’t get tested for the worst pandemic in a century—in some cases even after they say they’ve been exposed to people with confirmed cases and developed symptoms. No one has properly studied this phenomenon, public health expert Lawrence Gostin told The Daily Beast, so it’s unclear how common these conflicts are. But he and his colleagues “have heard frequent stories about parents blocking COVID-19 test for young people,” as well, he said.
No matter the scale, this trend is concerning—especially as kids go back to school. Most studies to date suggest minors are significantly less likely to catch the virus, get seriously ill, or die from the illness than older people. But the science is still out on whether minors are less infectious than adults. As the Trump administration and some local officials inflate those baseline realities to push for the rapid resumption of in-person classes, educators and scientists are sounding alarms about the potential for increased viral spread among children, and from them to more vulnerable communities.
Many experts argue one of the best ways to avoid a crisis as schools reopen is to make sure kids can get tested. But one major impediment to that goal is a legacy of anti-science panic, among other emerging forms of fear and skepticism, that seem to be seeping into parenting decisions.
“We generally recommend that someone who has come in close contact with an infected person be tested,” whether or not they have symptoms, and whether they are an adult or a minor, Doug Diekema of the Seattle Children’s Hospital told The Daily Beast.
Even some medical experts The Daily Beast spoke to who hadn’t heard of parents preventing their kids from testing for the coronavirus said the phenomenon doesn’t surprise them. A growing number of parents deny their children access to potentially life-saving vaccinations based on blunt ideologies and flimsy conspiracy theories. Granted, COVID-19 tests are not vaccines—no one seems to be arguing that swabs cause autism. But experts stressed that there are similar, if not larger, streams of misinformation about the pandemic and mistrust surrounding any official response to it.
“My mother says if I want to get tested, I am not allowed to return home,” a 16-year-old wrote on Reddit’s LegalAdvice forum back in May. “She keeps claiming that I would be entered into some sort of national database.”
Even people who might usually support science and medicine may be wary of pandemic response measures, noted Howard Markel, a University of Michigan expert on pediatrics, communicable diseases, and medical history. Some may be worried about the Trump administration’s intentions and operations when implementing programs—about bad science and misused data. Some are just under such an economic crunch that they may find it hard to stomach the idea of being told to quarantine their entire family for two weeks.
Every state has its own laws, many incredibly opaque or vague, about when and how minors can seek what medical procedures without parental approval. As COVID-19 testing is so novel, no one agrees how it fits into those frameworks. So the chances of minors figuring out how to get tested on their own are slim.
As are their chances of finding testing sites that will work with them.
“Minors can call their local health department and someone there will know the local and state laws,” Markel noted. Many, he stressed, will even be able to advocate for them with health-care providers if needed, and help them with the logistics of site location, travel, and payment. But minors like Kai worry that if they pursue tests behind their parents’ backs and get found out, it could cause serious problems at home. “Ever since we started quarantine, my relationship with my family has been getting worse,” he stressed. “I fear it getting even worse if I anger them.”
Public health experts know that state and school mandates have helped prevent some anti-vaxxers from denying care to their kids. A number of recent reports by education and medical groups have argued schools should institute regular, required coronavirus testing regimens to best track cases and outbreaks. However, the CDC hasn’t backed this idea, and few school districts have pursued it, likely because they don’t have the financial or logistical capacity—or the federal support—to make such a program work. Instead, they’ve largely focused on screening and mandating quarantines for kids with symptoms, and social-distancing and masking protocols.
A few minors on social media claim they’ve been able to use symptom screening regimens to get help, calling their schools, reporting their conditions, and letting administrators tell their parents they need to be quarantined and tested. But that does little for asymptomatic kids who worry about recent contact with infected individuals—or for minors like Kai who want to get tested to do their part for epidemiology.
In many cases, Diekema noted, “there is little recourse for those teens.” Except, of course, to vent their frustrations and raise awareness of their plight on the internet.