Overwhelmed by chaos and uncertainty, families with kids under 5 are on a vaccine roller coaster

Elizabeth Schroeder with her sons — Edward, 4, and twins Walter and George, 2 — at their home in Cincinnati. (Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)
Elizabeth Schroeder with her sons — Edward, 4, and twins Walter and George, 2 — at their home in Cincinnati. (Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)
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They’ve wrestled with child-care crises. They’ve missed work and paychecks. Some have even changed careers when day-care closures forced them to work remotely.

Parents of children younger than 5 say they feel forgotten and left behind, watching others reclaim normalcy while they stay home with kids who are too young to be vaccinated and have to quarantine when there is an exposure to the coronavirus at day care or school.

“The rest of the world has moved on, and they are not able to do so safely,” said Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Parents are now dealing with another twist in a two-year roller-coaster ride after a coronavirus vaccine for the youngest children was further delayed this month. The Food and Drug Administration said it would wait to make a decision on authorizing the vaccine until data on a third dose becomes available — opening up a host of new questions and concerns.

“There’s constantly the hope of something getting better — something getting dangled in front of us and then getting ripped away,” said Benjamin Huffman of Pleasant Hill, Calif., who has two children younger than 5.

About 1.9 million children younger than 5 have contracted the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The youngest continue to be spared covid-19’s worst scourges. Out of more than 900,000 deaths nationwide since the pandemic began, 307 have been among children ages 4 and younger.

The low risks from the disease, along with vaccine hesitancy, have left some parents unwilling to immunize young children, even as they are repeatedly inconvenienced by day-care closings and other restrictions. Recent polling shows that only 3 in 10 parents of children younger than 5 say they would get their children the shots right away, and a quarter say they would “definitely not” vaccinate their young children.

Should my child get a coronavirus vaccine? Is it safe? Here’s what you should know.

Others are ready to end restrictions. Yelena Rodriguez, a licensed speech therapist in Los Angeles with children ages 3 and 6, worries about the impact of prolonged restrictions on children’s social, emotional and speech development. There has been no in-person story time at the library, no visits to the infant and toddler play group she enjoyed with her older child.

“We need to help our kids return to a normal childhood,” said Rodriguez, 35, who along with her husband is vaccinated and boosted. She has not yet vaccinated her 6-year-old.

What to know about the coronavirus vaccine for children younger than 5

For many, the possibility that vaccine could offer their families safety and give them control over their erratic lives is almost too much to hope for.

“‘Pivot’ is the word of the past two years,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, 34, of Cincinnati, describing the constant shifts needed to keep up with changing risks and rules. “We’ve been living this life for so long, and it’s exhausting.”

Candice Ocampo

Richmond | Child: Age 2

(Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Ocampo, 34, said her son’s day care had been notifying parents of potential coronavirus exposures several times per week during the omicron wave. And when the exposures occurred in her son’s classroom, that meant she and her husband — who both work in health care — had to juggle their work schedules to make sure someone was at home with him.

Ocampo, a nurse practitioner, said her employer has been understanding. But “especially lately with just seeing how frequent the exposures are,” she said, “there’s a lot of anxiety and worry,” about having to call out sick from work and, of course, about her son’s health.

To decrease his exposure to the virus, Ocampo said, she and her husband, who works nights as a nurse, have started taking advantage of their different work schedules to keep their toddler at home. As they wait on a vaccine for their son, they now use day care only when their work hours overlap.

At this point, Ocampo said, she has been waiting two years and wants regulators to take their time evaluating the vaccine’s safety and efficacy for children.

“I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily in a rush,” she said.

Benjamin Huffman

Pleasant Hill, Calif. | Children: Ages 3 and 1

(Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Two years into the pandemic, Huffman said he feels worse than he did at the start, living in “absolute chaos” trying to protect his 1- and 3-year-old sons from the virus.

“I never know if I’m going to be at home on a given day, at work on a given day, taking a child to the hospital on a given day, dealing with a school closure on a given day,” he said. “And then sometimes I find out halfway through the day that it’s going to be different than I thought it would be.”

Huffman, 37, a therapist for Contra Costa County, said that while his children’s day care is taking covid-19 more seriously — which he commends — elsewhere it seems to be the opposite. Local restrictions are being lifted, and Huffman said he has to return to the office, giving him less flexibility than with remote work.

“Basically, life is returning to normal for everyone except for parents of kids under 5,” he said.

Elizabeth Schroeder

Cincinnati | Children: Ages 7 and 4, and 2-year-old twins

Schroeder received the news that a vaccine would not be immediately available with a sense of numbness. She had never allowed herself to fully believe they would soon end her children’s prolonged quarantine.

Schroeder never expected quarantine to become a way of life. In April 2019, she gave birth to twins just 26 weeks into her pregnancy. They needed respiratory support and were sequestered to protect their fragile lungs, first in the neonatal intensive care unit and then at home, until March 2020, when Schroeder and her husband planned a thank-you celebration for the nurses and the neighbors.

Covid was that month’s uninvited guest, closing doors the family had hoped to throw open.

Her husband, Craig, an engineer, has worked remotely ever since. Schroeder visits the office of the tree company she works for only when she can be alone there. With each new hurdle, they reevaluated the opportunities for their older children and their potential costs.

“We balance the risks and needs for the entire family,” Schroeder said. “It’s one of the bigger struggles.”

Seven-year-old Emma is in school, with its upgraded air filtration system and careful spacing. She was set to start a ninja gym class, but the omicron surge prompted Schroeder pull her out with hopes she can join in March instead.

Four-year-old Edward will start swim classes only after he is vaccinated. He qualifies for special-education services, including one-on-one sessions with a speech therapist who wears a transparent mask while he goes without. When there are more children in the group, they all mask up, and Schroeder wonders whether that is slowing Edward’s progress.

And they also got vaccinated. Schroeder has arranged for Edward to get his shot on his 5th birthday in March.

Now, what about the twins?

Schroeder was up late doing a sleep study with one of them at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when news broke that a vaccine might be available by late February for children younger than 5.

She called Craig the next morning. “There have been so many changes, it’s not going to happen,” she found herself saying, through tears. “Don’t get your hopes up.”

Now that those hopes have been dashed, Schroeder has no tears to shed as she wonders how the regulatory process could leave her with such whiplash.

“I have faith in the process abstractly, but I’m disappointed,” Schroeder said, even as she resigns herself to supporting the twins come what may: “A lot of people have worked hard to keep them alive. We’re not going to give up now.”

Yesenia Argueta

D.C. | Children: Ages 14, 6 and 2

(Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The omicron variant upended Argueta’s already challenging routine, sharpening the anxiety that has gnawed at her from the beginning of the pandemic. Covid notifications ping regularly on her phone — news of the delay for the under-5 vaccine and the end of a city indoor mask and vaccine mandate.

The single mother relies on a nonprofit day care in D.C. to look after her 2-year-old son, Ilias, during the day while she works at Howard University Hospital.

But after a year with no cases, Jubilee Jumpstart was hit by the virus in mid-December. Like dominoes, seven children and eight staff members came down with the coronavirus, prompting closures that, combined with one snow day and an icy morning, meant Ilias had to be kept home for an entire month.

Argueta, 34, was left with one option if she was to keep her job and provide for Ilias and her two older children.

“My mom is the only person I had to watch him until I got out at 4,” Argueta said, describing swift afternoon handoffs to give her 53-year-old mother a few hours’ rest before she, in turn, headed to Howard Hospital, where she works nights.

“It’s horrible, but it’s not the day care’s fault,” Argueta said. “With the little ones not vaccinated, any little symptom and they’ve got to quarantine. It’s a lot.”

As soon as Ilias returned to day care, his 6-year-old brother was sent home from school to quarantine, and Argueta’s mother was pressed into service again.

“It’s like a never-ending cycle,” Argueta said. “This covid stuff is taking too long for me.”

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