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Pediatricians Weigh In On What's Safe And Not Safe For Unvaccinated Children

A child wearing a mask sits on his father's shoulder on May 24, 2020 in New York City. Dr. Jose Romero suggested that taking toddlers into the public is a risk.
Alexi Rosenfeld
Getty Images
A child wearing a mask sits on his father's shoulder on May 24, 2020 in New York City. Dr. Jose Romero suggested that taking toddlers into the public is a risk.

After more than a year of hunkering down during the pandemic, many people who've been vaccinated for COVID-19 are feeling a little safer about stepping out. This is great for adults. But the vaccine isn't presently available to people under the age of 16 — children.

As a result, NPR listeners have questions on what exactly children (and parents) can and can't do outside. How do you navigate life when parents are vaccinated and kids aren't? Dr. Nia Heard-Garris of Northwestern University in Chicago and Dr. Jose Romero, the Arkansas secretary of health, are both pediatricians who fielded some of these questions Thursday on NPR's All Things Considered.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Amy Blackman of Fayetteville, Ark.: Is it safe for my fully vaccinated husband and I to go out with other fully vaccinated adults but then come home to our unvaccinated children?

Dr. Jose Romero: I think that couples that are both vaccinated and spend time together can return to the child feeling safe about not bringing home a virus because the risk of those individuals being infected, even asymptomatic, without any signs or symptoms, is extremely low.

Brigid Boettler of Lakewood, Ohio: Little kids are like human petri dishes in the best of times. How do we safely and considerately approach interactions with other parents and kids? And how in the world do you take two toddlers into a public restroom?

Romero: Taking them into the public is certainly a risk. And trying to be around individuals that have been vaccinated is the best thing to do. Any time you're in a group where you don't know what the vaccination status of the individuals around them is, is significant. So using a mask when possible is the best thing to do. We don't recommend masks under 2 years of age, so that's something that needs to be taken into consideration. Certainly the twins issue and taking them into a public restroom is a big issue. I have twin grandchildren and trying to corral them both is an issue. Main thing is, wash your hands and also use the gel after you close the door behind you.

Dr. Nia Heard-Garris: What I'll say is that outdoor play dates are probably the safest right now, especially for unvaccinated children. Indoor play dates are a significantly higher risk. And so if you're trying to organize a play date with multiple households, my strong recommendation is that it would be outside with kids wearing a mask and vaccinated adults.

Jim Boehm of Sykesville, Md.: Our daughter is at a prime age for making long-term friends, but we've had to start saying no to unmasked neighborhood kids coming to the house, asking her to come out and play. How do we navigate keeping our daughter safe while society will demand that we relax our stance, even though we really can't?

Heard-Garris: In my opinion, if your kid is not vaccinated, they should be wearing a mask to play with other children, whether they have Type 1 diabetes or not, and I don't know that you should feel guilty about saying no when kids come to your door and they're unmasked.

Audie Cornish: Are kids allowed to travel?

Heard-Garris: I am recommending against travel, especially airborne travel on an airplane. However, parents are trying to go anyway. And so I am recommending that they do as much as they can to keep their child safe wearing a surgical mask and on top of that, even wearing a cloth mask.

Romero: I think that foreign travel is very inadvisable at this time, and that's because of the level of the disease in many countries. If they do want to travel, I suggest that they travel by car. We want to try to travel as a unit in your car if possible.

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Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.