When the CDC recently announced that people who are fully vaccinated can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart, our immediate reaction was a sigh of relief, quickly followed by: Wait, what does this mean for me and my family? The CDC’s guidance did not specifically address parents of children under age 12 but here’s what the experts have to say about how these new guidelines affect children.
What do the new CDC mask guidelines mean for adolescents ages 12 and up?
The Pfizer vaccine is now available to people ages 12 and up. (Note: The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are currently approved only for those 18 and older.) Once children 12 and up are fully vaccinated (i.e., two weeks after they receive their second dose of the vaccine), the CDC says that it is safe for them to remove their masks in most settings, just like fully vaccinated adults. As with the new mask guidelines for adults, state and local laws apply, as well as the policies of individual schools and businesses. And masks will still be required for everyone on buses, trains and planes, and at stations and airports.
What do the new CDC mask guidelines mean for kids younger than 12 years old?
There are currently no vaccines approved for kids younger than 12 years old in the U.S. Translation? Children in this age group still need to wear masks. Per the CDC, all unvaccinated people age 2 and older “should wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.”
I’m fully vaccinated, but my kids aren’t. Do I still need to keep my mask on?
Short answer: Per the CDC, if you are vaccinated then you can safely take your mask off in most places (see exceptions listed above).
Long answer: Maybe. While parent don’t need to wear a mask, they may still want to.
Confused? First some good news: Dr. Emily Landon recently told NPR News that available research suggests that fully vaccinated parents of unvaccinated children can safely take off their own masks. “The vast majority of the data that's coming out — and what we're seeing anecdotally on the ground, taking care of patients — is that individuals who get COVID after they've been vaccinated, as long as they're not immunocompromised, they get really mild disease and they have such low viral loads that they're not passing it on to their family members,” Landon told the organization. She added that for vaccinated parents, it’s OK to remove your masks: “As long as everybody in your family, including yourself, are low-risk, it's probably fine for you to have an unmasked lifestyle now.”
So why the maybe? Because while parents have been told that it’s OK to take their masks off in most places, kids under the age of 12 are still being advised to wear masks. And if your 5-year-old sees you toss your mask to the side while entering the grocery store, he’s likely to do the same. In other words, parents may want to keep their masks on in certain situations in order to encourage their children to do the same.
Should I bring my kid to the grocery store, knowing there might be unvaccinated people walking around?
“This is a tricky one and pediatricians everywhere are really struggling with how to best give guidances for patients, especially families with very young children (i.e., ages 2 and below),” Dr. Christina Johns, pediatrician and Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics, tells us. “As I’ve said all along throughout this pandemic, the goal is to do the things you can to mitigate to the risk, knowing that for most of us it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk.”
For kids ages 2 and up, Dr. Johns says that kids should absolutely wear masks indoors. Per the expert, bringing a masked 6-year-old into the grocery store is pretty similar in terms of risk as what has been happening already. “Would I still think twice about going to places that are back to full capacity? I most definitely would. However, if you’re still able to go to a religious service, for example, and there’s an option to be masked and stand in the back, then the risk is lower.” In other words: Taking your masked kid to the grocery store is probably OK but you may want to avoid a sold-out movie theater. Outside, there is a little more flexibility. “There is acknowledgement, even by Dr. Fauci, that when a child is outside and not in a large group, the outside risk is much lower,” Dr. Johns tells us. Dr. Erika Schwartz, a concierge doctor in NYC, agrees, telling us that children don’t need to wear masks when outside in large areas where there is plenty of room for people to walk.
For kids under the age of 2, it’s a little trickier, the pediatrician acknowledges. For this age group, Dr. Johns recommends being strategic. For example, if you need to go to the grocery store with your 18-month-old, you may want to patronize grocery stores that still require masking or go to stores in off-peak hours. Precautions such as hand hygiene and social distancing should also be followed.
Can my unvaccinated child play with another unvaccinated child?
Dr. Purvi Parikh, immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network, tells us that playdates between unvaccinated children is totally fair game—provided that kids are taking precautions such as wearing masks and making sure nobody is sick. Dr. Leana Wen echoed this suggestion, telling CNN that unvaccinated children can indeed have playdates with other unvaccinated children, although she suggested doing so outdoors only. “My 3-year-old has playdates with other kids his age without masks,” she said. “Indoors, though, there's higher risk, and if they were to be indoors, they should wear masks,” she said.
Can my unvaccinated kids see their grandparents?
“The CDC says if grandparents are fully vaccinated, kids can be around their grandparents unmasked as long as everybody is feeling well and has no symptons” Dr. Johns tells us.
What are the COVID-19 risks for kids?
USA Today reports that over 3.85 million children have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the U.S. since the beginning of the pandemic, representing 14 percent of total cumulative cases. Per CNN, more than 300 children have died from COVID-19 and thousands have been diagnosed with a rare but serious condition called multi-system inflammatory syndrome. But the likelihood of a child becoming severely ill from COVID-19 is low—hospitalization rates are about 0.8 percent, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The chances of a child contracting and spreading the virus is a lot lower than it is for adults,” Cole Beeler, medical director of infection prevention at IU Health University Hospital, told USA Today. “Children just haven’t been affected in the same way older people have.”
Bottom line: Children and adolescents who get infected by the virus tend to have less severe cases of COVID-19, however some parents may want to continue to be more cautious.