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Should parents with young kids 'bubble up' this fall? How to stay safe from COVID-19

As winter approaches, experts share advice on how to keep kids who cannot receive vaccinations safe from COVID-19.

Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination makes most people far less susceptible to the disease, but for families with children too young to be vaccinated (under 12 years old), precautions are still necessary. As of Oct. 7, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that new cases of children with COVID-19 remain "exceptionally high," with over 148,000 cases reported in the past week.

Experts recommend continuing to take safety measures like wearing masks, practicing proper hand hygiene and increasing ventilation in spaces where kids gather, or moving activities outdoors if possible. Yet as winter approaches and more activities move inside, what should families with unvaccinated kids do? Here is some advice from a few experts.

Should families with kids under 12 avoid social gatherings?

Last year, many doctors and other health experts recommended forming "bubbles," or banding together with a small group of neighbors or friends so that people could get social interaction without drastically changing their exposure to the virus. The idea of these bubbles was that people would only interact with members of the bubble or pod, keeping everyone safe.

"The good thing about maintaining that bubble is it helps to ensure that you can participate in daily life activities and not be as concerned with getting the virus," said Karl Minges, the interim dean of the school of health sciences at the University of New Haven. "We've seen as a country, this fourth wave now with delta ... it seems to be declining, there haven't been a variety of additional (variants of concern), so we need to think about ways to prevent any future variants of concern until everyone has an opportunity to be vaccinated."

Minges said that bubbling up could be a good idea for parents who want to take extra precautions while they wait for young children to be vaccinated. To make the bubbles even safer, all participating eligible members should be fully vaccinated.

"My recommendation is, to the extent possible, (form) your bubble with your nuclear family and with family and friends around you who have been vaccinated and whose children have been vaccinated," he said.

Do I have to take precautions if I'm in a bubble?

Bubbles aren't impenetrable, so it can help to take precautions like wearing a mask when in close contact and isolating from members of your pod if you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

"We still have our close circle of friends and family in which we feel comfortable saying 'Hey, I think I may have a little sniffle, so we'll pass today,' that kind of thing," said Dr. Federico Laham, the medical director for Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children Infectious Diseases. "Have a close circle of friends, consider yourselves responsible, and just use common sense."

If your bubble does include unvaccinated children, it's important to make sure that the group is engaging in activities that are still safe for those kids. Try staying outdoors as much as possible or spending time at home, instead of going out to restaurants or engaging in other activities with large groups of unmasked strangers.

"In these winter months, it's great to engage in activities that allow (kids) to be outside, whether that's playing in the snow if you're in the Northeast or somewhere Southwest laying on a beach," said Minges. "The concern (of contracting COVID-19) is much less because particles are diluted in open air space."

To minimize risk to unvaccinated children, and to prevent outbreaks that can affect schools or daycares, try to make sure the children in your bubble are kids that would see each other anyway, like if they share a classroom or carpool to school together. Try not to form bubbles with children in different classrooms, since that could increase the scale of a potential outbreak.

"This helps public health experts doing contact tracing and mitigating the spread," Minges explained.

When will children be able to be vaccinated?

While forming a pod and taking other precautions can help keep kids safe, many parents are eagerly anticipating the day their young ones can get vaccinated.

"At this point in the pandemic ... my youngest child is 9, and I know she's next in the line," said Laham.

Pfizer-BioNTech recently submitted an emergency use authorization of their vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will meet at the end of October to discuss the request, and a White House official told NBC News that state governors have been told to start preparing to vaccinate those children by early November. It's unclear when children under the age of 5 will be eligible.

Until then, the best thing adults and eligible vaccine recipients can do is get fully vaccinated against COVID-19.