Opinion | What Do You Do When the Kids Are Still Unvaccinated?

There will be more than one reasonable way to approach the risks of family activities.

By David Leonhardt

Mr. Leonhardt is a senior writer at The Times and writes The Morning newsletter, where he has been covering Covid-19.

Many families will soon face a complicated choice about how quickly to resume their pre-pandemic activities.

More than 50 percent of American adults have already received at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot. At the current pace, virtually all adults who want to get vaccinated will have been able to get a shot by July. Yet relatively few children, especially younger children, will have been vaccinated by then. While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may be authorized for children ages 12 to 15 as early as next month, younger children appear to remain months away from being eligible for any vaccine.

What should those families do this summer and next fall, as they consider sending children to day care, seeing relatives, socializing with friends, eating in restaurants or traveling on airplanes?

The answers will not be easy. Families will make different decisions based on their own preferences. There will be more than one reasonable approach.

Some parents will choose to keep their children largely away from indoor social situations until vaccines are available for them. These parents will point out that some children have died from the coronavirus, while a few thousand others have contracted a rare inflammatory condition. These parents will also rightly say that many things about Covid remain mysterious.

Future variants could cause more severe effects in children, and the long-term effects of Covid-19 are unclear. A cautious approach may be especially sensible for families in which the children have underlying health conditions or some adults have chosen not to be vaccinated.

But other parents will be more willing to resume many parts of normal life before all of their children have been vaccinated. And those parents will be making a decision that is as scientifically grounded as the more cautious approach.

I recognize that some readers will be skeptical of this argument. Many Americans have now spent 13 months in some version of lockdown, and imagining a return to normalcy can be as uncomfortable as it is exciting. Perhaps even more important, parents feel intensely protective about their children and are often happy to endure inconveniences or worse to protect their children from any danger.

Unfortunately, there is no risk-free option available to parents in the coming months. Keeping children at home — away from their friends, activities, schools and extended family — can also harm them, as multiple studies have suggested.

“It’s really important to look at a child’s overall health rather than a Covid-only perspective,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a pandemic expert at Johns Hopkins University, told me. Keeping children isolated is particularly fraught for lower-income parents, because it forecloses child-care options and can keep them from working a normal schedule.

Any decision about family life over the next several months will have to involve weighing one set of dangers against another. My goal here is to walk you through the risks that Covid poses to children.

As a comparison, let’s start with its effect on adults. For them, Covid-19 has exacted a brutal toll, one large enough to warrant the shutdown of much of daily life. The disease has killed about 16 times more Americans than the flu would in a typical year.

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