When Kate Eichelberger and her husband got their Covid-19 vaccinations, they felt a sense of protection — not just for themselves, but for their young children, too.
At 6 and 8 years old, the kids are not yet eligible for Covid-19 shots, which are currently only available to those 12 and up. But Eichelberger felt relieved knowing that as a fully vaccinated adult, if she were exposed to the coronavirus at her workplace or anywhere else, it was unlikely she would bring it home to her children.
That relief evaporated last week after a change in federal guidance on masks for vaccinated people, followed by what prompted the switch: new findings about the highly contagious delta variant, detailed in a leaked internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document.
The findings indicated that while breakthrough infections in vaccinated individuals are far more rare than infections in unvaccinated people, such cases may be as transmissible as those among unvaccinated people.
Eichelberger, of Solvay, New York, felt like she had to re-evaluate the activities that her family had recently embraced again. Was soccer practice safe? Were swim lessons OK? How about masked trips to the library and the children’s museum?
“I’m tired. The mental math of determining what we feel is safe for our kids has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” Eichelberger said.
With the delta variant spreading across the country, many families with children too young to be vaccinated who had just begun venturing back into vacations, play dates and other pre-pandemic pastimes now say they are reconsidering.
Their concern is not just in directly exposing the youngest members of the family to the coronavirus, but that vaccinated parents, too, are no longer invincible. A weekend getaway without the kids or a date night at the movies or inside a restaurant suddenly feels like it could inadvertently bring the coronavirus into their household, something they had not previously fretted over.
Brian Clarke, an aerospace engineer in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, and his wife Christina, had booked a 15-year anniversary trip to San Diego more than three months ago for themselves, when coronavirus cases were low. The trip, their first away from their kids since the pandemic began, was last weekend and not as stress-free as they had envisioned.
“We took N95 masks with us and we wore them everywhere,” Clarke said. “It was definitely eye-opening for me being through an airport. That was a bit of a shock.”
Serious illness in children is rare, but pediatric coronavirus cases are on the rise, and many parents are wondering if their children will be next to get sick — a worry they had all but shed as Covid-19 cases nationwide dropped in the spring and early summer.
Some parents are questioning whether it is safe to continue to send their kids to camp. Some fear the upcoming school year will be upended by more Covid-19 cases in classrooms than ever before, between a more contagious variant spreading and mitigation measures, such as masks, no longer being implemented in certain schools.
And many vaccinated parents who had put their masks away for quick runs to the grocery store are now back to wearing them, such as Emily Lusardi, of Deerfield, Illinois, who has a 13-year-old son who is vaccinated and a 10-year-old daughter who is not.
“It’s a feeling of sadness, of ‘Ugh — we were almost there.’”
Last Thanksgiving, both Lusardi and her daughter had Covid-19. Up until a week or so ago, Lusardi, who got vaccinated in the spring, had mostly stopped worrying that they could catch it again, feeling like the pandemic was trending downward. Now, she cannot wait for vaccines to be approved for children under 12 — something unlikely to happen before wintertime.
“It’s a feeling of sadness, of ‘Ugh — we were almost there,’” she said.
‘The risk is really low’
While the delta variant is more contagious and may be more severe, studies show the vaccines are still effective at preventing severe illness and death, despite the small chance of breakthrough infections with them.
“We don’t hear all the stories of people that came into contact with someone who had Covid and didn’t get sick,” said Dr. Buddy Creech, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Vaccination is not a full-armored vest; rather, it is our best protection. I can’t say there’s no risk, but I can say the risk is really low.”
That has put parents in a position of having to once again decide what their risk tolerance is.
For Clarke, who has two daughters, 7 and 9, the delta variant has meant holding off a little longer on putting his girls back in gymnastics — an activity he and his wife had put on pause during the pandemic because they felt it was too risky.
“It’s an indoor space, and it’s a group, so we’re not really sure about that,” he said. “They’ve been asking when they can do it, but they understand.”
Still, Clarke said he is not nearly as worried about his family’s health as he was at the beginning of the pandemic now that he and his wife are vaccinated. He said he takes comfort in the fact that kids have a low probability of getting very ill.
“We’re just trying to lower the risk as much as we can, knowing they’ll probably be fine,” he said.
Sheeri Cabral, a product manager for a tech company who has two young children, said she worries more about other people’s behavior at this point than her own. She worries concerts or other crowded venues could become superspreader events, either among unvaccinated or vaccinated people, leading to an uptick in coronavirus cases.
“Nobody wants to keep staying home. Nobody wants to keep wearing masks. But we do, because that’s the sensible and reasonable thing to do at this point,” Cabral, who lives in Boston, said.
In the rare event that a vaccinated parent does get a breakthrough infection, Creech said, they should isolate in a separate part of the house away from their unvaccinated children, if that’s practical. Otherwise, he recommended wearing a mask and hand-washing when interacting with their child.
But he stressed that healthy children with no underlying conditions will likely have more mild cases of Covid-19 than adults typically do, so parents should not be overly concerned.
The best way to protect kids, Creech added, is to make sure everyone around them who can get vaccinated does.
For Eichelberger, the New York mom, being vaccinated remains a huge comfort. But having to still worry about unwittingly catching or transmitting Covid-19 — especially to her kids — has weighed on her.
“If I had known this was going to happen, I would have spent my pregnancies reading about epidemiology instead of parenting styles,” she joked.