New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) allows people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to go unmasked in most situations. But parents with children too young to be vaccinated may wonder what this means for their family.
Parents will have to weigh the risks for their children — and might want to hold on to their masks a little while longer, say experts.
More than half of adult Americans are fully vaccinated and teens ages 12-18 now are eligible for vaccination also. (Fully vaccinated means a person is two weeks past their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or single dose of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine.)
But the COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been approved for use in children younger than age 12.
Although vaccine testing is underway in children as young as 6 months old, approval is still months away.
If parents are prudent and continue taking precautions, they don’t need to be unduly worried about letting their children go out in public or interact with others, says Ericka Hayes, MD, Washington University infectious diseases specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Around vaccinated family members at home, unvaccinated children can probably go mask-free safely. But in public, wearing a mask is a very effective way to protect a child against COVID-19 infection, says Dr. Hayes. She also encourages parents to model mask-wearing for their unvaccinated children, who may have to wear masks for several more months.
“You can feel confident if you are consistently wearing that mask and doing the social distancing,” she says. “Wearing the mask is highly protective.”
Children infected with COVID-19 generally tend to have milder symptoms, but not always. The randomness with which COVID-19 can cause serious or life-threatening symptoms has convinced Kristen Bruno, MD, Washington University pediatrician at the Children’s Specialty Care Center, to encourage her young patients and their parents to continue wearing masks.
Mask-wearing and other precautions, including distancing and frequent handwashing, can help unvaccinated children participate safely in summer activities, says Dr. Bruno.
"I am a parent and I look at the data. I look at the evidence and my kids’ health. Last summer, I did send my kids to camps, but they were wearing masks. I felt they were distancing and they had precautions in place. So, if you are doing those things then, yes, your kids can go to summer camp, they can go to school, they can go to daycare," she says.
Experts say that most COVID-19 transmission happens within the home, so it’s recommended that all members of a household who are eligible to be vaccinated get the vaccine.
It’s also important that unvaccinated children be especially careful to maintain good practices like mask-wearing around family members or friends who have suppressed immune systems due to illness or organ transplant.
Finally, Dr. Hayes urges parents to speak up. Parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask people in close contact with their children whether they’ve been vaccinated.
“Ideally, people you are friends with or are related to you are really invested in everyone’s safety,” she says. “So, hopefully, you can ask those questions and have those conversations.”