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In an alarming twist, children likely play a much larger role in spreading the coronavirus than previously thought.

That's according to new research out of Massachusetts General Hospital that looked at the viral load — how much of the virus an infected person's body produces — of children with COVID-19.

"I was surprised by the high levels of virus we found in children of all ages, especially in the first two days of infection," Dr. Lael Yonker, director of the hospitals' Cystic Fibrosis Center and lead author of the new study, said in a press release.

"I was not expecting the viral load to be so high," Yonker added. "You think of a hospital, and of all of the precautions taken to treat severely ill adults, but the viral loads of these hospitalized patients are significantly lower than a 'healthy child' who is walking around with a high SARS-CoV-2 viral load."

The study, which was published Wednesday in The Journal of Pediatrics, included 192 pediatric patients up to age 22, though most were children or teenagers. But only 49 of the patients tested positive for the coronavirus, so the doctors are drawing conclusions from limited data.

That said, the study reverses some misconceptions about how the coronavirus affects children and could have important implications for the already-thorny back-to-school season.

"This study provides much-needed facts for policymakers to make the best decisions possible for schools, daycare centers and other institutions that serve children," Dr. Alessio Fasano, a senior author of the study, said in the release. "Kids are a possible source of spreading this virus, and this should be taken into account in the planning stages for reopening schools."

READ MORE: Researchers show children are silent spreaders of virus that causes COVID-19 [Massachusetts General Hospital]

More on viral load: Scientists: The Coronavirus Has Already Mutated into 30+ Strains