After more than a year of virtual taekwondo classes from his living room, 9-year-old Ben Hillenburg will attend in-person lessons this summer at Warden Martial Arts.
Ben’s immunodeficiency complicates his other summer plans. He had a heart transplant at 7 weeks old due to dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of enlarged heart muscles.
“Usually, we’d be sending our kids to summer camp,” says his mother, Stacy Hillenburg, who’s also a parent to kids 12 and 13 years old. “But, because we don’t know what summer camps are doing — if they’re having masks, obviously kids can’t be vaccinated yet, we don’t know how many of the other kids are vaccinated — that’s not an option right now.”
Like many families with unvaccinated children, the Hillenburgs from Naperville are figuring out how to safely enjoy summer since 2- to 11-year-olds won’t get a vaccine until September at the earliest. Among the pediatricians and infectious disease experts we talked with, few agreed about which activities are “safe” since each family situation differs.
Children are less likely to contract COVID-19 and even less likely to die from it. But the numbers aren’t zero. At nearly 4 million confirmed cases, kids account for 14.1% of COVID-19 cases and 0-.21% of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“If your child happens to be one of them who does get severely sick with COVID and ends up in an I.C. or on a ventilator or dies, those numbers don’t mean anything to you,” says Dr. Mike Patrick, an AAP spokesperson and an emergency pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
In Chicago, there are more than 30,000 confirmed COVID confirmed cases among ages 0-17, accounting for about 11% of citywide cases, according to chicago.gov.
With a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent advises parents to talk with friends’ families about what’s safe for them. The Lurie Children Hospital’s infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at Northwestern University also suggests unvaccinated children keep their masks on and play outdoors.
When asked if children should hold off on hugs when visiting their grandparents, Heald-Sargent smiles: “The CDC has been clear: go hug your grandparents.”
Asked the same question, Patrick paused.
“Boy, that is really hard,” he says. “If a grandparent is immunized and the child has a mask on, the safest thing is to maintain your distance and to use a mask. On the other hand, it’s been over a year.”
The safest defense against COVID-19 is the vaccine; the second-best strategy is mask-wearing, according to Patrick.
“It’s still possible for an unimmunized person to get COVID from an immunized person,” says Patrick, wearing a ‘Science: it’s like magic, but real’ T-shirt. “It’s low risk, but the risk is still there.”
Nearly every summer activity comes with risks. Here’s what the experts say:
For days at the beach or pool, Heald-Sargent has a rule: consider the crowd.
“If you think about the stereotypical 1980s movies where all the kids are jumping in on top of each other — because you can’t wear a mask in the pool — that’s going to be close quarters with some unknown people and you won’t know their risks,” Heald-Sargent says.
Whether it’s a day car ride or a month-long trip, wear masks and follow local guidelines while traveling, Patrick says.
The CDC recommends people “delay travel until you are fully vaccinated.”
Playdates with unvaccinated children
Many said to keep social circles small and to check with other families about their comfort levels in case a neighborhood friend has a family member at high risk for COVID-19.
Eating in a restaurant
From igloos to heated tents last winter, outdoor eating popularized during the pandemic. With the weather warming up, families should capitalize on restaurants serving outside, according to both Patrick and Heald-Sargent.
When it comes to camps, Heald-Sargent says they can be safe with the right preventative measures. However, mask-wearing policies are muddled with swimming, eating and drinking, while social distancing can be hard at campfires or while stuck inside during a storm.
“Children screaming camp songs inside of a closed barn is not ideal to keep the virus in check — although it’s a lot of fun,” said Heald-Sargent, smiling.
The CDC recommends unvaccinated campers avoid indoor or close-contact sports and camp organizers limit “nonessential visitors, volunteers and activities involving external groups.” In general, they don’t need to wear masks while outside, according to the newest guidelines.
Although the Hillenburgs whittled camp from their summer plans, playdates are allowed with other vaccinated children. Other summer activities remain under discussion.
“I think any summer activities that are outside of our circle will probably be outside,” Joseph Hillenburg says. “So, maybe there’s an outdoor festival or farmer’s market …”
“Oh God no,” says Stacy Hillenburg, laughing as she interrupts. “What are you talking about? That’s too many people!”
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