Rebecca Kendall has gotten used to asking everyone who interacts with her 6-year-old son, Asher, if they’ve been vaccinated. While the 42-year-old mother is fully vaccinated, her son is too young to be vaccinated, so the couple remained cautious.
But as summer approaches, Kendall has decided to enroll Asher at Camp Anglewood, a day camp near his Elkins Park home that will continue to take coronavirus precautions.
“The pandemic has been tough on him,” she said of her son, who has autism. “This kid needs to have a real summer. “
As Pennsylvania and New Jersey see their vaccination rates among residents 12 and older rise and case rates plummet, adults and teens are returning to the world. Restaurants, bars, and shops are bustling again, and masks are optional at many businesses. Philadelphia lifted its indoor mask mandate on Friday. But uncertainty and anxiety remain for many, including children under 12 and their parents.
The risk for children of contracting a severe case of coronavirus remains low, experts say. In Pennsylvania, cases in children ages 5 to 18 accounted for 13% of all infections reported since the start of the pandemic, state data shows, and they accounted for 13% of all cases reported this week. May 28 to June 3, the most recent period for which this data has been made public. In New Jersey, cases among those under 18 make up about 12% of all documented infections.
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Coronavirus vaccines could be approved for children under 12 as early as the fall, according to reports last week from Pfizer and Moderna. But until then, pediatricians and public health experts have said a small risk remains for unvaccinated children, especially if they interact with other unvaccinated people without taking precautions.
“As more and more people get vaccinated, we found that there was much less spread of the virus,” said Denise Johnson, acting general practitioner from Pennsylvania. “But we know that the cases we’re seeing right now are mostly unvaccinated people. “
This reality may leave parents, many of whom are fully vaccinated themselves, with tough decisions about how immersed their families are in the reopened region after 16 months of restrictions. As public health guidelines shift from mandates to recommendations, experts say adults need to balance the physical safety and mental health of their toddlers, acknowledging that keeping children isolated for months longer is not only unrealistic but potentially harmful.
From parents, “I hear a little bit of anxiety and more just from people trying to figure out how to handle this,” said Cheryl Bettigole, Acting Health Commissioner of Philadelphia.
In North Philadelphia, Natalie Mathurin, chief pediatrician and associate medical director of Greater Philadelphia Health Action Inc., reminds patients at her Hunting Park health center that children under the age of 12 should continue to follow the measures they are taking. many adults have stopped taking it.
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“We don’t want to be so restrictive on kids that they can’t have fun and have fun,” she said. “But I want parents to do this for realism. What is real is [children] are not protected, so you have to do everything besides the vaccine to protect yourself.
Experts recommend that children between the ages of 2 and 12 continue to wear masks in public, at gatherings, and in indoor spaces outside the home, especially when others in the room may not be. vaccinated, and opt for outdoor activities when possible. Indoors, unvaccinated children should continue to keep a distance of six feet from others, experts say, and if children are under 2 years of age or cannot wear masks, low-risk activities, such as small outdoor gatherings with vaccinated people are recommended. .
“The other thing to keep in mind in all of this is that it’s more than just a mask or no mask. We’re looking at: what’s the case rate right now? What is positivity [rate]? Said Bettigole. “As these numbers fall [as they have recently], it’s safer. Your risk decreases.
Even though she is fully vaccinated, Alexis Buckley, 41, said she continues to wear her mask “to set a good example” for her daughters, Lauren, 10, and Kaitlyn, 7. Girls are used to wearing their masks to school, Buckley said, so it has become instinctive to put them on whenever they step outside their East Norriton home.
Meg Snead, the acting secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, said she too advises her daughters, 3 and 7, to keep their masks on in public.
“Use caution when it comes to wearing a mask, especially if you don’t know whether you’re going to be around vaccinated or unvaccinated people and you’re not necessarily comfortable having this conversation,” she declared.
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Bettigole recommends this strategy.
“As a parent, we usually say, ‘The children do what we do, not what we say,’” the health commissioner said. “So for a lot of parents, even though they don’t need a mask because they are vaccinated, it is better to keep the mask on because they want their children to do so. “
Ideally, officials from Pennsylvania and Philadelphia said, children should also wear their masks if they are outside and playing within six feet of other unvaccinated children. However, with the risk of transmission outdoors being much lower than indoors, they said there may be exceptions to the recommendation.
“As parents, we choose our battles all the time,” Bettigole said. “So if your child is happy to wear their mask, so much the better. If you are constantly arguing with this child and you make the parental decision that they are going to take their mask off on the outside but are going to have it worn on the inside, this isn’t the worst decision you have ever made. taken. ”
Buckley breathes a sigh of relief as she thinks about the day her daughters can get vaccinated just like her, her husband and the rest of their extended family.
“I guess the risk to them is so small, but you just don’t want to have the only child who has the complication,” Buckley said. “I will feel a lot better when they are vaccinated. “
So was Kendall, who was in isolation for almost a year with her son. She admits that she has reservations about giving him a relatively new vaccine, she said, “but I’m going to put my faith in science and want some normalcy in her life. “
After reports last week that injections were okay for children as early as the fall, Susan Ramirez-Chung, a pediatrician at Advocare Fairmount Pediatrics, said parents were asking for details on the timing and whether they could register their children in advance.
“The reason they’re asking,” she said, “is they want to go back to a pre-COVID life, what that might be like. “
Parents in her practice – which comes from wealthy parts of the city and suburbs – are “a little mixed,” she said, about how they handle the reopening with children under 12. years. Some have kept everything. family members, vaccinated and unvaccinated, masked everywhere they go, she said, and couples have changed their work schedules to care for their children at home. Others have resumed their pre-pandemic activities and are taking a less strict approach, especially if they have multiple children, some of whom are older and vaccinated. But overall, she said, many of these parents say they plan to vaccinate their children.
In north Philadelphia, Mathurin said she already has a handful of patients under 12 on a list the health center will call when that age group becomes eligible. Many have older siblings who have already been vaccinated, she said, and parents want all of their children to be back to normal soon.
READ MORE: Children in Pennsylvania and NJ line up for COVID-19 injections as parents feel both relief and hesitation
As young children wait for their injections and continue with the restrictions, doctors and public health experts have said the impacts of the pandemic on mental health are at the forefront of their minds.
“I think as a parent it’s important to just talk to your kids,” said Snead, Secretary of State for DHS. “I think having an open dialogue about your experience as we’ve been through the pandemic and coming out of it will be important to make sure we know exactly what kinds of trauma they’ve been through and can address it.”
During office visits, Mathurin educates families not only about vaccines and the need to continue taking precautions, but also about the importance of keeping children mentally healthy during this time.
“It’s important to think about it: How has COVID affected your child? ” she said. “I think this question is going to have to be asked for a long time. “