Expert Opinion: What Activities Are Safe for Your Unvaccinated Child?

Pools, Playgrounds, Parades, Planes --What is and isn't Safe for Kids Under 12

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Kids prepare to leap into the pool as Mayor Muriel Bowser declares pool season open at the Woody Ward Recreation Center. Courtesy: DC DPR

The city is reopening around them, but families with children 12 and under face a quandry: what’s safe for them to do?

The COVID vaccine is on the way –according to Pfizer, they will assess the data for kids from 5-11 to request an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in September, with younger kids to follow closer to end of year.

The Delta variant of the disease has been detected in the region as of late June. It is far more contagious than previous variants.

“Basically it [Delta] has the same symptoms and the same findings as the regular variant or the other variants that we’re seeing,” said Dr. Tina Tan, professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Dr. Tina Tan, professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of the board of directors of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Courtesy: Dr. T. Tan
Dr. Sarah Schaffer DeRoo is a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital. Courtesy: Children’s National

Read: What’s Safe for My Unvaccinated Child? How to keep unvaccinated kids safe

While information is still evolving, pediatricians say the presence of the Delta variant amps up the danger for children, said Dr. Sarah Schaffer DeRoo, a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital.

“We don’t have any experience in the past. We [only] have about a year and a half of evidence to go on,” Dr. Schaffer said. “I worry about the risk of hospitalization and death that is small, but real. And when your family has that one child that’s affected, your risk becomes 100 percent.”

A DCPL employee takes Polaroid photos of groups at a June 3 event. Masks were required for children.

What’s Safe?

But does that mean you should leave your kids at home this summer? Not necessarily, say the medical professionals. But you do have to weigh the risk, both in your own household and in any given situation.

General advice for a given situation boils down to a consideration of the space and the number of people in it. Will you be indoors or outdoors? Can you maintain social distance? Will others be masked? Do you know [no, really know] the vaccination status of others that are present?

Here are expert takes on bringing your children into some common summer scenes:

Parades: Outdoors at a parade is better than being indoors, Dr. Tan said, because transmission outdoors is lower. Still, she advises parents to mask kids in large crowds outdoors where social distancing is difficult or impossible, including in the crowd at a 4th of July parade.

“I would say that anytime you know you’re going to a place where that there is a potential for large crowds to be, that it would be much safer for an unvaccinated person to wear a mask,” she said.

Dr. Schaffer agrees, and adds that parents should not only consider what they should do, they need to consider what their family —and their child— are actually going to do.

“I think that parents really need to use their best judgment. Is the personal distancing something that is possible?” Asked Schaffer, herself the parent of a four-year-old. “Is it something that they can maintain knowing their own children and their behaviors? Is masking something that they’re able to do if they’re in public spaces?”

Amusement Parks, Festivals: “I would say don’t bring a kid. There’s just a chance for too many people being at outdoor concerts or festivals,” Dr. Tan said. “You can ask [organizers] but the parent would have to make sure that the child who’s unvaccinated is not in a very large crowd.”

Pools and Splash Parks: Dr. Tan said pools are definitely fine —there have been no instances of COVID transmitted in a swimming pool. But, because kids tend to gather on decks or in the area on the outside of the pool, they should probably be wearing masks when out of the water.

Splash parks are a little different, Tan said. The chlorinated water does act as a disinfectant but kids are less likely to get fully saturated and are more likely to pack together.

The CDC recommends against wearing masks during water play, both because it can inhibit breathing and because a wet mask does not work as well as it does when dry.

Grocery Stores: “I think that’s fine to bring a child. Put a mask on the child if you think the grocery store is going to be crowded,” said Tan.

Indoor Dining: Dr. Tan recommends families with children do not dine indoors. Dine outdoors with kids, she said. “We know the transmission of COVID is much less if you’re outdoors.”

Playgrounds: Dr. Tan said that outdoor playgrounds are fine as long as social distancing is possible. “I mean, parents can somewhat control that.” Use parental discretion, she adds. A mask is a good idea on a busier playground or where a child might find social distancing to be a challenge.

Summer Travel —Airplanes: Here the two experts most greatly differ. “Airports and airplanes I think are fine because everybody’s gotta wear a mask on the airplane,” said Dr. Tan. “They don’t let you on the plane unless you wear a mask. You know, I think hotels are probably fine; I think many of the hotels have really gone the extra mile to keep the hotels clean.”

Dr. Schaffer said that summer travel should be confined to emergencies. ”My personal recommendation would be to avoid traveling in public arenas whether it’s on airplanes or on trains, buses until children are able to be protected by vaccines,” she said. “You will hear different things from different pediatricians or physicians who have different interpretations, but I am quite conservative.”

A family awaits sweet treats at the Southwest Soda Pop Shop at the Wharf. Where kids must be maskless, it’s best if they’re outdoors, said Dr. Tan. Photo: Cory Langley

Guidelines Difficult to Establish

Dr. Tan said that establishing general guidelines is difficult because best practices can depend on the situation —what a family needs and where they plan to be.

A problem, Tan said, is that in most jurisdictions mask mandates have only been lifted for the fully vaccinated. “But people take advantage of that all the time,” Dr. Tan added. “You don’t know who in the community is vaccinated and who’s not.”

But don’t despair. While it may seem unfair for parents to place these constraints on their children while the (presumably) vaccinated adults go without, the experts say that children understand this better than adults often think.

Both doctors agree that the situation can be explained to children as young as 4 or 5 years of age using simple, developmentally appropriate language. Be honest, clear and consistent about the situations and public places in which children must be masked and socially distanced. “If you’re consistent with the “rules” then I think that children will continue to adapt readily,” Dr. Schaffer said.

“The children that we have seen are incredibly adaptable,” assures Dr. Schaffer. “They wear masks and forget about them –for the most part they are better than many adults I see at wearing their masks.”