New York Times science reporter discusses how SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge and what the rapid spread of the delta variant has meant for families and schools. “The thing about delta is that it is so much more contagious than we ever expected this virus to be,” Apoorva Mandavilli says. 

As the new school year began, she notes, the variant brought an uptick in the number of children hospitalized with Covid-19, and many students quarantined at home. But schools do have a number of tools they can use to keep kids safe, from encouraging proper ventilation to masks and more widespread use of frequent testing. Putting these into place, however, has been uneven across the United States. They are more important than ever if keeping schools open is indeed a priority for society. 

The changing nature of the pandemic is once again forcing families, especially those with young kids not yet eligible for vaccination, to reevaluate risks and navigate uncertainties. “Every step of the way, we’ve had to think about: ‘Is this activity safe for our family?’” Mandavilli says.

What’s made reporting on Covid-19 a continual challenge, she says, “is the unexpected curveballs, like delta, that suddenly change our perception of where we are in the pandemic.”


This video is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Watch more videos from Knowable Magazine.


Video Transcript:

Apoorva Mandavilli: “The thing about Delta is that it is so much more contagious than we ever expected this virus to be.”

Apoorva Mandavilli has been reporting on the science of the Covid-19 pandemic since it began, and has written hundreds of breaking news articles about it.

She is in frequent contact with the scientists, doctors and policy-makers who are leading the efforts to understand and contain the Covid-19 pandemic.


Apoorva Mandavilli: “What would you say to parents who are reluctant to have their kids be vaccinated?”

Anthony Fauci: “You do not want your child to get infected, not only because it could be serious disease, but because there may be long lasting effects of Covid-19.”


Apoorva Mandavilli: “You know, we saw Alpha and we thought that was so much more contagious than the original virus, and then Delta has just left that in the dust. Because there are so many adults vaccinated, and because there are so many older adults vaccinated, now the kinds of people we’re seeing in the hospital are mostly unvaccinated but also some younger people, and more kids than we’ve seen with other versions of the virus. And that’s not so much because Delta is preferentially hitting kids more than any other variant did, but Delta does cause this huge viral load at the start of the infection. And so even though kids might be more protected than adults are, more kids are getting sick, and more kids are ending up in the hospital than before.


Speaker: “In areas where hospitals are at capacity, something has got to give.”


Apoorva Mandavilli: “The problem is that a lot of hospitals don’t really have a lot of pediatric ICU capacity, so it’s very easy for them to be overwhelmed. And what we’re seeing is not just the coronavirus but RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], which is another virus that affects kids, and some kids are coming in infected with both.

“I think it’s a real concern as we go into the fall that we will see more and more kids infected. Mississippi opened schools on August 9th and within three weeks they’ve had 4,500 kids and about a thousand teachers infected, and they’ve had to quarantine thousands and thousands of children. That’s going to happen everywhere in the country where Delta hits. It’s going to hit in Texas and Florida — places where mask mandates are not really in effect. Those are going to be the worst hit, but everywhere children will be more affected by Delta than they have been.”

Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward.

Apoorva Mandavilli: “I joined the New York Times right around the pandemic. I’m able to dive into deep virology, deep immunology, because I have enough of a background in biology. The first few months just went by in a blur, just trying to understand how this virus fits into our broader knowledge of pathogens. Towards the summer, the focus really shifted to children and schools, because the school year had been kind of a bust until that point. And parents, including myself, were really desperate to have their kids back in school and we really didn’t know how safe that would be. As people got vaccinated, again it looked like by summer we might be out of the woods — and then Delta happened.

The emergence of the Delta variant

Apoorva Mandavilli: “Every time a virus infects a person, it multiplies in their body. And every time a virus multiplies, it has the chance to make changes to its genetic code. As viruses multiply in lots and lots of people, they’re going to form tons and tons of variants, and most of those variants won’t be very helpful to the virus to survive and they’ll die out. But every once in a while, the virus comes up with a variant, like Delta, that has some sort of competitive advantage. It gives the virus more fitness, scientists say. And when a variant like Delta has that competitive advantage, it will dominate over all the other variants.”

A Covid curveball: Delta spreads

Apoorva Mandavilli: “I probably had the hardest time I’ve had during the pandemic because my parents live in India. And when Delta hit India so hard, I and every other Indian person I knew who has family in India, we went through hell and I was just terrified for my parents. That is probably the kind of thing that has made reporting on this pandemic the hardest, is these unexpected curveballs like Delta, that suddenly change our perception of where we are in this pandemic.”

Rethinking risks

Apoorva Mandavilli: “My son is vaccinated now, but my daughter is not. And every step of this way, we’ve had to think about, ‘Is this activity safe for us as a family? Well, it’s safe for him, but is it safe for her? What about masks? Should we wear masks here? Should we not wear masks there? And should we send them back to school?’ We don’t really have the answers, so a lot of the time, like everybody else in this country, we’re just trying to assess the risk for ourselves every day.

“Parents that I see and talk to for reporting, and in my personal life, are sort of divided into two camps: There are parents who are just really sick of worrying about this virus and just think, ‘OK we’re just going to send the kids to school, and whatever happens happens,’ and then there are parents who are terrified and can’t wait for the vaccines to be available for kids, and keep asking me, ‘When are they coming? When are they coming?’ And somewhere in between are a whole bunch of parents who are not really sure what to do.

“A lot of parents got to a point where they felt like OK, they can actually be in school and it’s safe, and now having to shift that back to ‘Oh, wait, is it actually dangerous for my kids?’ It’s a bit of a mental shift that’s hard to make, and I think also difficult for schools to make. So everybody who is so excited for schools to open now has to again consider what are the precautions we have to put into place. Do kids need to be wearing masks every day again? What about windows that don’t open? Do we need better ventilation? It’s great that we are prioritizing schools, but I think that conversation has to happen at the same time as talking about what schools need to do to keep kids safe.”

Keeping kids safe at schools

Apoorva Mandavilli: “The best thing that schools can do really is to think about ventilation — whether that’s doing as much outdoors as they can or if they have to be indoors, thinking about how they can make the indoor air a little bit safer for the kids, updating their HVAC systems, having windows that open.”


Apoorva Mandavilli: “Would it help if the kids ate lunch outside or cracked open a window? I mean, how important is ventilation?”

Anthony Fauci: “Oh, it’s critical, it’s critical — and that’s probably where some of the infection transmissibility occurs, not only among children but even among adults, where you have pretty good prevention measures at the time you’re in the class or working, and then you let your guard down when you get a lunch break.”


Apoorva Mandavilli: “There’s a lot that we as a society could be taking away from this pandemic for our day-to-day lives that would actually improve our quality of life. Before this pandemic, kids in certain places like New York City hardly ever went outside, and I think that could be very different. There were countries in which every class was held outdoors, so

schools need to think about what they can do outdoors. This is not the last respiratory pathogen we’re going to see. And even apart from that, it’s good for kids to have fresh air.

Covid testing: A need for speed

Apoorva Mandavilli: “We’re not doing anywhere near the kind of testing that we could be and should be, and the access to testing has been very patchy. You’ve got athletic teams who are really well-funded who are testing every day, and then you have school districts that really need it that have no access to testing at all. There are a lot of experts who say that rapid tests would have been the way to go. If you do them enough, they give you very valuable information. We could have been mass-producing rapid tests. And the government should have been subsidizing it for schools to buy these rapid tests in bulk, so that they can actually do the kind of testing they need to do to keep kids safe: Have kids tested every single day or have kids tested every few days, just to make sure that the virus isn’t circulating in the school community. But without that help, a lot of school districts are just making things up as they go along, so there are a lot of school districts that will do no school testing at all this year, just like last year — and it’ll probably be worse with Delta.”

A future of variants

Apoorva Mandavilli: “To my mind, the scariest thing about Delta is not even Delta itself; it’s the reminder that we are not done with this virus — that we are going to keep seeing variants and there may be something worse than Delta around the corner. Evolution is random, so we don’t know exactly in what way the next variant is going to be more fit. Will it be more contagious than Delta? Will it be more immune-evasive? Will it be more severe? We just don’t know. So it’s a bit like rolling the dice and giving the virus just millions and billions of opportunities to experiment and play with making new versions of itself. That has been, really, the biggest wake-up call, that just because some proportion of this country is vaccinated does not mean we’re anywhere close to done, because the rest of the world is not vaccinated and the virus has so many opportunities to keep changing.”