When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines saying it is safe for fully vaccinated Americans to go without a mask in most situations, many sighed in relief and happily cast their masks aside.
But parents with children who are too young for a COVID-19 vaccine wonder what this means for them: Should they continue to wear masks in public places? Do they need to keep their children away from the grocery store, Target or movie theaters?
“Parents should encourage masking and they should avoid crowded public spaces,” Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY. “So that’s it in a nutshell.”
Yet these new mask guidelines only refer to fully vaccinated people age 12 and over.
“We’re not talking about unvaccinated kids,” Dr. David Cennimo, assistant professor of medicine in adult and pediatric infectious disease at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, told TODAY. “The new mask guidance that we’re talking about is literally titled when you’re fully vaccinated.”
In what settings should unvaccinated children wear masks?
The CDC guidance recommends that everyone (fully vaccinated people, too) still wear a mask on planes, public transportation, mass congregate settings, such as prison or a homeless shelter and at the doctor’s office.
Unvaccinated children should wear masks any time they’re in a crowded public place and especially if it is indoors. Children should wear their masks in stores, movies, school, indoor spaces and crowded outdoor spaces. Parents might also find that continuing to wear a mask might help their children understand the importance of masking to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep them from feeling alienated.
“What I am advising my friends who have kids, for instance, is that I wouldn’t change anything,” Cennimo said. “They’ve lived a lot of months with risk mitigation strategies with masking and I would go a bit longer and see how this plays out until we have a better understanding.”
That might mean keeping children at home a little longer.
“Avoid taking children to crowded public places even if parents and their children might be wearing masks,” Cennimo said.
Still some parents can’t go to the store without their children, for example, and it might seem scary to take their masked child to a place where adults might be without masks. Your child’s facial coverings do help.
“They do have considerable protection because that is a barrier to other people’s droplets and aerosols, and you’re going to diminish the volume of exposure of infectious material that might be spewed out by the unvaccinated person,” Vermund said. “So, yes they derive protection.”
What do the guidelines mean for immunocompromised children?
Parents of immunocompromised children will probably take as many precautions as they have been. Cennimo said that these families always needed to adhere to different public health measures to protect their children.
“You’ve already been mindful of that, if you have been raising an immunocompromised child. COVID-19 is, of course, very scary for you. But so are a lot of other things,” he said. “I would try to limit exposures but I wouldn’t say that’s different than during the flu season.”
Can unvaccinated children go to camp?
When making the announcement CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, noted: “We need to look at our travel guidance, our school guidance, our child care guidance and our camp guidance.” While new updates sound like they’re forthcoming, the experts believe that summer camp for some children could be safe.
“We have seen COVID outbreaks at summer camps, but we also have seen summer camps that have done well,” Cennimo said. “Those that did well did really good testing of cohorts. In some ways it’s kind of paradoxical that the sleep-away camps maybe did better.”
That’s likely because sleep-away camps often only allowed children who tested negative to attend and they didn’t leave every day and increase their exposure to COVID-19, he added.
“I would look at what protocols the camps have in place. How they are going to do testing, tracing. Do they have protocols for notification and quarantine,” Cennimo said. “I would make a decision based on that."
Vermund said that camps with older children might even require vaccination for attendance. But younger children can still be safe at summer camp.
“The great outdoors is a friend to all of us,” he said. “The more outdoors, the safer it is.”
While indoor activities, such as sleeping or eating, could increase risk, he urges parents to consider case rates in the area, too, before sending their children off to camp.
“We do have some things going for us this summer, higher vaccine rates in adults, higher vaccinate rates we hope in adolescents, outdoor activities,” he said. “It’s not asking too much for people to wear masks indoors.”
Will the new school year include masks?
As for school, the experts expect that masks will be the norm until younger children can be vaccinated.
“If you look at the CDC data … that informed the safe school openings, the school systems that did well had a high mask retention rate. So those kids were masked all the time,” Cennimo said. “Schools can open and be safe in the presence of everybody wearing a mask. So I have a feeling we would stick with that.”
And for parents who worry that the vaccine might have been rushed, Vermund said that’s just not true.
“We’ve been working on mRNA products for 30 years and these sorts of vaccine concepts have been in development for at least a decade,” he said. “We have one of the most effective and one of the safest vaccines ever and we have the data to prove that.”