Those lucky enough to have received both vaccine doses (or one dose of Janssen/Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine) can now hang out in a private home, blissfully mask-free, with other fully vaccinated folks, according to the guidelines.
But what about families with kids?
As of now, kids younger than 16 are not authorized to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S., so there’s no way they can be fully protected. Does that mean parents and their children are staring down another year of isolation? Here’s what to know.
Kids get seriously ill far less often than adults
First, the good news: It’s pretty rare for kids to get a severe case of COVID-19. According to CDC estimates, COVID-19 hospitalization rates are 80 times higher among adults older than 85 than they are among children of ages five to 17. Death rates for adults older than 85 are a staggering 7,900 times higher than they are for children.
There are always unfortunate exceptions, of course. Kids certainly have been hospitalized and died from the virus, and some have developed an inflammatory condition known as MIS-C. Some evidence also suggests kids, like adults, can develop long-term symptoms after an infection. But, in general, a child who gets sick with COVID-19 is likely to have a fairly mild case and make a full recovery.
So, what’s safe for my family?
Even though children are at lower risk, families with unvaccinated kids shouldn’t rush straight back into pre-pandemic life, even if both parents are fully immunized, says Dr. David Kimberlin, co-director of the pediatric division of infectious diseases at Children’s of Alabama. “We are beginning to loosen up and emerge from this darkness,” Kimberlin says, but “it’s not full sunlight” yet.
Your family can, however, take small steps. Under CDC guidelines, fully vaccinated people can visit with one household of unvaccinated people, provided none of the unvaccinated individuals has an underlying condition that puts them at risk of complications. That means, for example, that your children’s vaccinated grandparents could come to your house for an indoor, unmasked visit, even if the kids aren’t yet protected.
Such a visit isn’t entirely risk-free, says Dr. Richard Malley, a senior physician in Boston Children’s Hospital’s division of infectious diseases. Malley says he is confident that a fully vaccinated person is less likely to spread the virus than an unvaccinated person, but exactly how much less likely they are remains unclear. Without that information—and with new variants complicating our knowledge of the virus and how it spreads—it’s impossible to say exactly how risky it would be for an unvaccinated child to spend time unmasked around other people, even if those other people have had their shots.
Can the kids have a playdate?
Until your kids are vaccinated, Kimberlin says he wouldn’t invite anyone unvaccinated into the house without a mask—even another child. The kids could potentially infect each other, and then pass on the virus to someone else, he says.
This situation will improve with time, Malley says. As more adults get vaccinated, case counts, test positivity rates and hospitalizations should continue to fall. As they do, you may feel more confident about expanding your social bubble, since it will be increasingly unlikely that anyone in your circle was exposed to the virus. “That risk declines as the intensity of the virus in that community drops,” Malley says.
But for now, it’s still safest to arrange playdates for the kids outside, or inside wearing masks, Kimberlin suggests. And if your child has a health condition that puts them at higher risk of severe disease, you may want to continue taking precautions until he or she can get vaccinated.