These are heady times for parents in Colorado who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. A summer of possibility sprawls out ahead: travel, visits with family, ballgames with friends.
But this optimism is colliding head-on with a reminder that, while vaccinated adults are well-protected against infection, their unvaccinated children are not.
The state’s fourth wave of coronavirus cases is being driven by the young. People age 19 and younger currently make up more than a quarter of all new cases in the state — the group’s highest proportion of the pandemic. Outbreaks in schools are growing. Cases among high school and middle school students are rising faster than among any other age group.
“Their rate is much higher than what we’re seeing on average for adults, and the increase we’re seeing is pretty steep at this point,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said last week.
So does this mean parents need to dial back their families’ post-vaccination plans to boring from roaring?
Not quite, said Dr. Sam Dominguez, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. But parents who have less concern about their own health now that they’re vaccinated will need to continue taking precautions to protect their kids.
“I think we need to think about kids in the same way we think about unvaccinated individuals,” Dominguez said.
In other words: Kids too young to be vaccinated still need to be cautious about socializing in large groups, eating indoors or having close contact with other unvaccinated people.
The good and bad news about kids and COVID
The pandemic has already been difficult for parents trying to understand the risks posed to their children.
Kids are much less likely to suffer a severe illness if they are infected with the coronavirus. People age 19 and younger make up less than 0.2% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths and only about 3% of the state’s total coronavirus hospitalizations.
“Overall kids are doing much better than their adult counterparts in this pandemic,” Dominguez said.
This has caused some experts to argue that the risk calculations should be different when it comes to kids and adults. The well-known economist Emily Oster has said that parents should think of their children as being like vaccinated adults, when it comes to the risk of getting really sick.
Though it’s rare, kids can suffer serious consequences from COVID-19. Colorado has seen several dozen cases of coronavirus-related multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a life-threatening condition. Others have experienced long-term symptoms, such as the loss of their sense of smell.
More easily transmissible coronavirus variants have become the dominant forms of the virus spreading in the state. Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, estimated last week that the B.1.1.7. variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, now accounts for roughly 50% of the state’s cases.
While Dominguez said there is no evidence yet that the variants hit kids harder than the virus’ original forms, he said the fact that they are more transmissible will likely lead to faster, wider spread among unvaccinated people, driving case counts higher. And that will naturally lead to more hospitalizations, including in kids.
Dominguez said Children’s Hospital Colorado has already seen an uptick in hospitalizations for COVID-19 as cases have risen in the community.
Navigating summer socializing
Dominguez recommends that unvaccinated children follow the same public health guidance for unvaccinated adults. (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a handy chart.)
This means trying to keep most social activities outdoors. Unvaccinated people attending a small, outdoor social gathering with fully vaccinated friends or family don’t even need to wear a mask. But outdoor dining with people from multiple households is considered risky for the unvaccinated, and attending crowded outdoor events, like a concert or a ballgame, is even riskier.
Small indoor events require the familiar precautions — masks and distance. It’s probably best to forgo large indoor events.
Dominguez said the same precautions that apply for kids in social gatherings should also apply in places like summer camps.
“I think we all want to get out and start doing different things,” Dominguez said. “But I think we need to think of kids as being in the unvaccinated group and following guidelines.”
There is good news, though. Currently, kids as young as 16 can receive the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer, and Dominguez said he hopes the ability to socialize more freely will be a strong inducement for older teens to get the shot.
Pfizer has asked federal regulators to approve its vaccine for use in kids as young as 12 — a request regulators could grant as soon as next week. Pfizer and another vaccine maker, Moderna, are also conducting clinical trials for their coronavirus vaccines in kids as young as 6 months old.
So it’s likely that children will one day be able to join their parents among the fully vaccinated. Until then, Dominguez recommends playing it safe.
“They don’t get as sick as adults do,” Dominguez said of kids. “But we also know it’s not zero risk.”