This phase of the pandemic, when adults can be vaccinated but young children cannot, is confusing for many families.
By Claire Cain Miller, Margot Sanger-Katz and Kevin Quealy
As vaccinated Americans return to many parts of their prepandemic lives this summer, one group will be left out: children under 12, who cannot yet be vaccinated. So what should families with young children do when everyone else starts socializing again?
We asked experts as part of an informal New York Times survey. The group of 828 who responded included epidemiologists, who study public health, and pediatric infectious disease physicians, who research and treat children sick with diseases like Covid-19.
They noted that this phase was temporary. Pfizer has said vaccines for children ages 2 and up could come as soon as September. Of the survey respondents with young children, 92 percent said they would vaccinate their own children as soon as a shot was approved. (Only five said no; some were undecided.) In the meantime, families with young children may need to retain more precautions, like masking and distancing, than their childless friends do. But they said some minimally risky activities could help counteract the mental health effects of pandemic living.
“Kids need to be able to be kids,” said Mac McCullough, an associate professor at Arizona State. “Outdoor activity isn’t perfectly safe, but its benefits are likely to outweigh its risks across an entire population.”
We asked the experts about a few situations that families could encounter, and how they suggested parents and unvaccinated children should behave. There was no consensus, but they mostly advised weighing the relatively small health risks against the benefits of widening children’s worlds. As always, epidemiologists — who tend to be a very cautious group — emphasized that it would depend on the exact circumstances, and on local case rates.
“I think a lot of families are frustrated and feel left out and anxious as to how to navigate life now,” said Dr. Sahera Dirajlal-Fargo, an infectious disease pediatrician at Case Western Reserve University. “Children have asked me, ‘Everyone else gets to move on, what about us?’ I am focusing on what we know families can do safely, and we know so much more than we did last year.”
Here’s what they said.
Indoor and crowded outdoor public places
New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that vaccinated people can go almost everywhere without a mask. But what should families with unvaccinated children do, since it’s impossible to know whether maskless people in public places are vaccinated? A slight majority said that despite that uncertainty, children could still go inside public places or be in outdoor crowds, as long as they wore masks.
“As a mom, I’m not going to bring my children into such places if I can avoid it. But over all, I think the risk is very low, particularly if children wear masks.”
Kelly Hirko, assistant professor, Michigan State University
“Our children look to us — anywhere I would want them to mask, I’ll be masking as well, to set the example.”
Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, director, San Diego State University Institute for Public Health
“Huge problem here. The onus is now on children (and parents) to deal with and overcome problems generated from adults who refuse to get vaccinated (and likely won’t wear masks anymore).”
Alan Kinlaw, assistant professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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