Sen. Cornyn Questions Whether Kids Can Catch, Spread COVID-19, Experts and Data Say Yes

Case data provided by the State of Texas shows hundreds of children have tested positive; Dallas County confirms 17-year-old Lancaster girl died of COVID-19 in late April

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When asked about the safety of Texas students and teachers returning to classrooms, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) appeared to question whether children can catch and transmit the new coronavirus, but data provided by doctors and government websites contradict his statement.

"We still don’t know whether children can get it and transmit it to others," Cornyn said in an interview Thursday with NBC 5.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, more than 1,700 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in people ages 0-19 statewide.

NBC 5 sent those statistics to the senator’s staff and asked for clarification on his comments, but they did not respond to our question on Thursday afternoon.

On Friday morning, Cornyn staffers provided more information on the senator’s statement regarding uncertainty about whether children get and transmit COVID-19 saying, “while he could have been more precise with his language, Sen. Cornyn was referring to this tweet” on the risk level for young children from former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb. That tweet is below.

Cornyn’s office initially said on Friday morning he was referring to young children in his comment, not teenagers and young adults who are included in the state’s data on cases in the under 20 age range. However, the dashboard NBC 5 shared with Cornyn’s office on Thursday showed more than 500 of those patients are under the age of 10. When NBC 5 again referred them to that link Friday morning, the senator’s office later said they had not seen that data. Texas DSHS has published age information on just over 10% of total cases.

A doctor at Children’s Health Dallas and UT Southwestern recently told NBC5 children made up a small, but an increasing number of cases in Dallas County. He also explained children can spread the virus, including in settings similar to schools like daycare and summer camps. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children should follow the same social distancing guidelines as adults and it recommends that children over the age of 2 wear face coverings.

Classroom Concerns

Cornyn made the statement in response to a question about whether schools should open for in-person learning.

"I think the most important thing is safety. The schools can open, but if parents don't feel comfortable sending their children back then they won't go. So, I think we've got a long way to go to regain their confidence,” he said. “The good news is if you look again at the numbers, no one under the age of 20 has died of the coronavirus. We still don't know whether children can get it and transmit it to others.”

Cornyn clarified his comment on deaths in the under 20 age range was specific to Texas.

However, in late April, a 17-year-old Lancaster girl died of COVID-19 making her the youngest victim of the virus in Dallas County.

NBC 5 informed Cornyn’s office of her death following the interview and asked whether it changed his response on whether to reopen schools.

A spokeswoman did not answer that question on Thursday, but called the senator’s statement “an honest misunderstanding.” She said Cornyn got his data from this dashboard provided by Texas 2036, which shows no deaths in the under 20 age range.

Texas 2036, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the state’s bicentennial, told NBC 5 it gets its data from the state health department. Texas DSHS has published age information for 703 COVID-19 victims across the state, which is less than a third of the 2,918 total deaths reported in the state.

During the interview, Cornyn expressed concern about students falling behind with at-home learning.

“In addition to making sure we understand what safe reopening looks like, we’re going to have to rebuild confidence in the parents who are sending their kids to school or they’ll simply keep them home and too many of them will fall far behind, particularly folks in lower socioeconomic groups,” he said.

Rising Case Numbers and Shutdowns

NBC 5 also asked Cornyn whether the spike in COVID-19 cases across the state meant it’s time for more businesses to close. 

“What we need to do rather than shut down the economy again, is we need to do what we were told from the beginning, which is to maintain social distance, mask, wash your hands, and if you feel sick, stay home,” Cornyn said. “We know that there are basic fundamental measures like that, we can take responsibility for ourselves and stop this community spread.”

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) recently ordered bars to shut down and rolled restaurants back to 50% capacity across the state. He also put into effect a statewide mandate ordering most Texans to wear face coverings, with some exceptions. Local governments can choose how and if the mask rules are enforced.

Cornyn praised Abbott’s decisions.

“The governor has handled this about as well as you can given the fact that there’s no playbook,” Cornyn said. “Obviously he has given more authority to the mayors and county judges to insist on masking when you go in stores and restaurants.”

At this point, Cornyn does not believe local leaders should have the option to issue stay-at-home orders. 

“I think that’s an overreaction. I don’t think that’s necessary. We did do that for a while to bend the curve, and we all learned to be in our homes and not go outside. I think we need to deal with this not with a sense of fear and dread, but just to learn the lessons that this virus has been teaching us over the last few months.” 

Cornyn said he believed Texans would follow the governor’s recent orders.

“The threat of further shutdowns is certainly going to encourage people, and just a sense of fundamental personal responsibility," he said.

Relief and Recovery

When lawmakers return to Washington, Cornyn will be working with other senators on the next coronavirus relief package.

“We literally have been working on this since March,” he said.

Congress passed a $2 trillion package called the CARES Act at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to spend that much money that quickly," Cornyn said. "A bunch of that money still is not out the door yet.”

He said lawmakers were discussing different programs and evaluating how well they worked. He pointed to the Paycheck Protection Program as a success, while saying other efforts were not as effective.

“Before we start adding to the national debt, I want to make sure that we are spending the money that we’ve appropriated in the most effective way,” Cornyn said. “It’s clear we need to continue to help, but it’s not clear that we need to do this as broadly as we tried to do in March.”

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