The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated people can ditch masks in most indoor settings. Several states have begun to lift mask mandates. And some schools are loosening mask requirements.
But as many Americans celebrate the new guidance as a step toward a return to normalcy, some parents of young children who cannot yet be vaccinated say they feel left behind.
“For me, it wasn’t a time to celebrate,” said Janie Able, a mother of two 7-year-old girls in Omaha, Nebraska. “My husband and I are vaccinated, but what about my children?”
She added, “I absolutely don’t trust people to do what’s right and wear their masks if they’re not vaccinated. And that’s going to put my children at risk.”
Research has shown children are less susceptible to COVID-19. As of May 6, over 3.85 million children had tested positive in the U.S., representing 14% of total cumulative cases, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. But the AAP report still states hospitalization and death are uncommon in children.
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“The chances of a child contracting and spreading the virus is a lot lower than it is for adults,” said Cole Beeler, medical director of infection prevention at IU Health University Hospital. “Children just haven’t been affected in the same way older people have.”
Beeler called the CDC decision a step in the right direction that shows the effectiveness of the vaccines and incentivizes people to get vaccinated.
“It sends the message that getting the vaccine comes with benefits,” he said. “It incentivizes those who are vaccine hesitant. It’s a wonderful carrot at the end of the stick.”
But Beeler said he recognizes the concerns of parents with young children.
“As a parent, you have to do what you feel is best to protect your children and that may mean still keeping restrictions in place on what you go out and do with your children,” Beeler said. “All of this is weighing risks and benefits for you as a family.”
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is now available to children ages 12 to 15 following the CDC’s recommendation Wednesday. Beeler said he expects children younger than 12 will begin getting vaccinated soon and hopes this will calm the fears of some parents anxious about loosened mask requirements.
While she understands children are less susceptible to the virus, Able said her family will continue to wear masks to better shield her daughters from the virus.
“I know it’s a low percentage, but there are children who have gotten it and been affected,” she said, her voice breaking. “What if it was your kid? I would take a gamble on myself. But my children? Never.”
‘A new dimension’ of family fatigue
Emily Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology at Baylor University, said the new CDC guidelines have been “hard and confusing” for parents who are fatigued by making constant difficult decisions to protect their children from the virus.
“The new guidelines add a new dimension to that fatigue for families with littles who have not gotten their vaccines yet,” she said.
In a Facebook post, Smith said the new guidelines depend heavily on “the honor system which I don’t trust anymore” and may leave behind people who are still vulnerable, including children, high-risk adults and communities with poor access to healthcare and vaccinations.
“There’s still a large amount of unvaccinated high-risk individuals who rely on people telling the truth about whether or not they are vaccinated and acting accordingly with masking,” she wrote.
Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the AAP committee on infectious diseases, said in a Friday statement that younger children should continue to wear face masks in public until they are eligible to be vaccinated.
“We’ve already seen how the masks have helped prevent the spread of respiratory infections within schools, camps and other community settings, particularly when everyone wears them, washes hands and follows other infection control guidance,” Maldonado said.
But Sarah Howland’s 15-month-old daughter is too young to wear a mask, she said. While Howland, from Chicago, was first excited about the new guidelines, she quickly became anxious and frustrated when thinking about how it may affect her young daughter.
“I’m not sure that I trust that relaxing the guidance is the best thing for my daughter,” she said. “I am terrified of her getting sick and having long-term effects from that that we’ve yet to understand.”
Because her daughter can’t yet get vaccinated or wear a mask, seeing others around her wear masks gives her a level of calm and protection, Howland said.
“I feel like parents with young children aren’t being fully considered in these decisions,” she said. “A mask feels like an easy thing to do to protect our children.”
Suzanne Publicover, a mother of a 3-year-old and 15-month-old in Washington, D.C., agreed and also plans to continue to wear her mask.
“I’ve been extremely upset and frustrated about the new guidance,” Publicover said. “It seems extremely premature and as though they haven’t even considered parents and young kids.”
“It’s infuriating that we’ve been left behind,” she added.
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Rebecca Muller, the mother of a 3-year-old son in Collingswood, New Jersey, said the new guidelines put pressure on parents to make difficult decisions about where it is safe to take their children.
“It hasn’t been that much of a big deal to wear a mask,” she said. “If it’s going to be one step to keep someone safe, why not?”