A nationwide increase in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the highly contagious delta variant, which now accounts for the vast majority of infections, worries many about the most vulnerable as restrictions are lifted.
Among them, parents of young children who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccines wonder what the delta variant means for their families.
The Delta variant now accounts for more than 83 percent of Covid-19 cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. Just a month ago, the variant accounted for just over 30 percent of new cases.
And on Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics or AAP recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when they return to school this year, regardless of vaccination status. This was contrary to the CDC’s previous guidance, which was that fully vaccinated students did not need masks. Covid-19 vaccines are only approved for people aged 12 and over in the United States
As parents prepare for camp, vacations, and the school year ahead, families are concerned about how secure their summer or fall plans may be for their children.
Here’s what the best pediatricians said about what families need to know about the delta variant and children.
What steps can I take to protect my family?
Permission for emergency use of vaccines for children may not come until mid-winter, a Food and Drug Administration official said recently.
Dr. Jim Versalovic, chief pathologist and interim chief physician at Texas Children’s Hospital, said: “This variant is spreading like wildfire. That means we need to be extra careful among those who are unvaccinated and partially vaccinated… We are very concerned about children under the age of 12 who do not have access to the vaccine at this time. “
Versalovic said doctors had seen a “very dramatic shift” in the last two to three weeks to where the delta is now “by far the most dominant” variant among children.
Dr. Jennifer Lighter, a pediatric specialist in infectious diseases at NYU Langone Health, said the delta variant, while “certainly more contagious,” does not appear to be more dangerous to children than other variants. As of Thursday, more than 4 million children had been diagnosed with Covid-19, approx. 14.2 percent of all cases, according to the AAP. Versalovic also said, “We have no solid evidence that the severity of the disease in children and adolescents is different from the delta variant.”
Dr. Michael Green, a pediatric specialist in infectious diseases and medical director of infection prevention at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, said vaccination is “the most important thing parents can do to protect their children” from getting coronavirus in general, including the delta variant. Parents should also consider encouraging other members of their families to be vaccinated, he said.
Versalovic said being vaccinated was “the # 1 tool to prevent and mitigate the spread and transmission of Covid, including the delta variant.”
“This is a race between the vaccines and the variants,” he said.
What do experts say about personal schooling?
The AAP, which said it is important for children to return to personal learning this year, also recommended school staff wear masks.
The CDC and AAP recommend personal learning, although they differ from mask guidance. Some states have banned districts from requiring masks in schools. Local governments and school districts have the authority to make their own decisions about masking, even for non-vaccinated students.
Versalovic said that while wearing masks was a politically charged debate, “it is certainly important to consider the importance of masking in schools in addition to disinfecting.”
Parents with children aged 12 and older should also consider how long there is between two doses of the vaccines, he said.
“Now is the time to consider vaccinating a child before the next school year,” he said.
Green said parents with children with underlying medical conditions or in states with low vaccination rates that limit masks in schools may have much more difficult decisions.
“It’s really, I think, a tough decision that parents have to make,” said Green, who is involved in the care of children who have had organ transplants.
“When school districts choose to do it their own way and not enforce masking at all, I suppose we might learn that it’s not a good thing to do,” he said, adding, “The fear is that there will be more spread within schools than we have seen before. “
Should my child go to camp this summer?
Medical experts said it was important for parents to be informed about whether summer camps followed public health guidelines and what safety precautions they took to protect children.
Lighter said parents should try to figure out the Covid-19 protocols in a camp, such as what symptom screening or test it does, what its masking policies are for indoor and outdoor activities, and the vaccination policy for its staff. Camps where employees are vaccinated and those who have policies such as encouraging masks indoors will reduce the risk of unvaccinated children, she said.
The AAP has also said campers should wear masks during indoor activities.
Versalovic said parents should work closely with their camps and ask key questions about what protocols are in place and vaccination status for counselors and other staff who will be with their children.
“I’m not here to discourage camp activity. We know it can be very important developmentally for children,” he said. “I think we just need to work with the camps to make sure parents are fully aware of the practices that these camps are putting in place to protect their children, and that of course includes masking, removal and decontamination in their facilities. “
Should we take that plane to visit Grandma?
Families planning vacations or long-awaited trips to visit relatives may wonder what delta means for long-distance travel plans.
Dr. Richard Malley, a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that so far, air travel itself has not been a major source of coronavirus transmission. The use of masks is required on airplanes and other important forms of public transportation while traveling within or outside the United States and while indoors in transportation centers, such as airports and stations, according to the CDC.
Malley said wearing masks in flight reduces the risk of transmission, so while the mode of travel may not be the biggest risk, the destination may be.
“So if you are going to a place that has lots of viruses, it may not be the best place for you to take your child,” he said.
He said weighing the risk of traveling depends on the situation. If the trip involves other fully vaccinated adults with minimal exposure, the risk is reduced, he said. But if the trip involves exposing children to other unvaccinated adults, especially those in vulnerable populations or crowded indoor environments where people may not have masks, “the equation is not in favor of that trip,” he said.
What about play dates?
With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, families have navigated how to return to their social lives safely. This includes how to create play dates for their non-vaccinated children, even though parents may not know the vaccination status of others around them.
Malley said it is reasonable to ask parents in advance about the vaccination status of people in the household, as well as whether anyone in the home has symptoms.
“I think parents and individuals are becoming more comfortable asking this type of question,” he said.
Versalovic said other important factors are to ensure that play dates are outdoors whenever possible, and to keep them in unfilled environments and in smaller playgroups where parents can also keep their distance.
The risk would increase “dramatically,” he said, if playback dates were held in crowded indoor environments among other unvaccinated people, especially around potentially vulnerable unvaccinated adults or people with underlying medical conditions.
Malley said that because of the threat from the pandemic, parents need to be “more in line with what they do with their children” and “what are the best activities, what are the safest activities that are also fun and educational or physically rewarding” . “
He said there was a good chance that “we will have to deal with this for quite some time”, although it is not at the same intensity as when the pandemic began last year.
“This is here to stay, and if we find out how we can live in a way that is safe and yet not too restrictive with our children, we limit the safety damage that children have experienced,” he said.