The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic isn’t over — especially for our children

Students wearing protective masks on the playground at an elementary school in San Francisco in October. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
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With coronavirus infections declining to their lowest levels in nearly a year, and mask mandates ending in many states, the foreboding we’ve lived with throughout the pandemic has finally been replaced by optimism. But covid-19 remains a real concern for many — including families with young children.

Not everyone is worried about kids. It’s true that children are unlikely to become severely ill from covid-19. Of the 3.9 million children diagnosed with coronavirus, just more than 300 have died. However, some children have become seriously ill, with more than 16,000 hospitalizations reported from a database of 24 states and New York City. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents more than 3,700 instances of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a potentially severe consequence of covid-19 that results in inflammation of the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain and other organs.

With adults increasingly vaccinated, children constitute a higher proportion of new diagnoses. Pediatric infections represent 14 percent of the total since the beginning of the pandemic, but are now up to 24 percent of new weekly cases, with nearly 49,000 infections reported in the week before May 13. This is to be expected: As more adults become immune, the virus has fewer vulnerable people left to infect.

Indeed, a recent Post analysis demonstrated that while the risk to vaccinated people is very low because of the extraordinary benefit of vaccines, the risk to the unvaccinated remains high. When vaccinated people are removed from the population used to determine the infection rate, for instance, Washington state’s case rate for unvaccinated people is as high as it was in late January during the peak of covid-19 infections. In Maryland, officials noted that unvaccinated young adults have the same likelihood of contracting covid-19 now as they did during the winter surge. Alarmingly, the risk of hospitalization among the unvaccinated has more than doubled compared with January, likely because of more contagious and deadlier variants.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

All of this is compounded by the CDC’s new guidance that essentially ended mask mandates overnight. Few businesses are requesting proof of vaccination, opting instead for an honor system that many doubt will be effective. As a result, children are increasingly being exposed to maskless, unvaccinated people in public places, further increasing their risk.

What’s to be done? The single most important action is to continue vaccinations to drive down the rate of infections. Even if we don’t achieve true herd immunity, a high level of immunity in most parts of the United States could decrease new infections to such low rates that the unvaccinated will be protected from covid-19, too.

This includes vaccinating all eligible children. The Pfizer vaccine is already available for children ages 12 to 15, and Moderna has just announced promising results for adolescents 12 and older. Vaccination drives should be held at schools, which should follow colleges and universities in requiring the coronavirus vaccine, as they do other childhood immunizations.

The CDC also needs to do its part. By now, it’s too late to walk back its poorly communicated mask guidance, but it can clarify some important points.

To begin with, the CDC can differentiate between businesses and advise that indoor mask mandates still apply to essential services. Businesses deemed essential earlier in the pandemic, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, should once again carry this designation so that parents with young children and the immunocompromised can safely patronize them. The CDC should also clarify that, while masks are not needed in outdoor settings, indoor masking is still required in schools unless certain metrics are met — for example, low enough community transmission rates or high enough vaccine uptake among students and staff.

In the meantime, families should make decisions based on their personal risk tolerance. My family is being cautious. We will socialize with others who are fully vaccinated, including indoors for meals. But if there’s another family with unvaccinated children or if we are uncertain about people’s vaccination status, we will see them outdoors only. If I’m going grocery shopping, I’ll take my 3-year old and make sure we are both wearing masks, but I’m no longer bringing my 1-year old, who can’t yet mask and who I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by unmasked, unvaccinated people. We are fine with the toddler going to summer camp and with taking our family for day trips, but we are postponing cross-country flights with the kids until the level of infection drops further.

As a society, we can and must do a lot more to prioritize our children, including to consider the continuing risk that covid-19 poses to them and to others without immune protection. This Memorial Day promises to be a much better one than the last — but the pandemic isn’t over.

Read more:

Drew Altman: We aren’t getting a national vaccine ‘passport.’ So let’s use the next best thing: CDC vaccination cards.

Salman Rushdie: Salman Rushdie: What’s irretrievable after a pandemic year

Michael Gerson: The right is dwelling on slanderous myths about the origins of covid-19

Barkha Dutt: India failed to save the living from covid-19. Now, it won’t count the dead.

Tracy Moore: A seismic standoff over remote work is building

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