Things had started to feel somewhat normal for Joshua Stokes and his family this summer, with a family trip to a resort near San Diego and in-person visits with vaccinated friends.
But now, with the delta variant throwing a curveball in the world’s pandemic recovery plans, Stokes said he and his family are being more cautious.
Stokes, who is fully vaccinated, canceled two of his own trips this month and is pushing off plans to visit family members with his four kids, all of whom are too young to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Children 12 and older in the U.S. can receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, while clinical trials on vaccinations among younger children are still ongoing.
“All of our elective travel plans right now are off the table until either the kids can get vaccinated or until cases die down again,” he told USA TODAY, noting he’s concerned about breakthrough infections. Until then, “we’re not particularly interested in putting them on planes, in airports, through hotels, things like that.”
►A guide for parents of unvaccinated kids:Are play dates safe? What about flights?
►Are crowds safe as delta variant spreads? Experts explain COVID risks at common gatherings
Health experts say travel can be risky, given the rise of the delta variant, but each family will have to weigh the risks themselves and determine whether to follow through on vacation plans at the tail end of summer.The number of people in the U.S. hospitalized with COVID-19 has more than tripled over the past month to nearly 45,000, but still hovers far below the nearly 124,000 hospitalizations in January during the winter surge, according to CDC data.
“A lot of people and families went into the summer really feeling and hoping COVID was winding down … (but) the pandemic isn’t done,” said Angela Bengtson, an assistant professor at Brown University’s department of epidemiology. “Every family has to look at what their own unique features are, where they’re going, what their tolerance for risk is and assess that.”
Should unvaccinated kids travel amid delta variant surge?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests people avoid both domestic and international travel until fully vaccinated, but does that mean parents with unvaccinated children should cancel their family vacations?
Short answer: it depends, according to health experts.
Staying home offers a much lower risk of transmission, but experts say travel can be important for children, both socially and developmentally.
“The safest thing for anybody is not traveling. That’s going to limit your exposure the most,” said Bengtson, who has a 4-month-old daughter. “That said, a lot of families and people, after going through a year and a half in a pandemic, have put off seeing family or friends … so they are weighing these choices.”
Karl Minges, interim dean at the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, said families shouldn’t necessarily rush to cancel a vacation now that COVID cases are spiking but suggested they be mindful of how they travel.
Minges took a trip to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with his husband and three children last month and spent time focusing on lower-risk activities like going to the beach and riding bikes. The family avoided the downtown area unless it was windy and less crowded.
“We just had to adapt,” Minges said. “I would just say to adopt a plan to really embrace the great outdoors as much as possible.”
He added that a trip to a theme park or similar venue that would entail spending a lot of time crammed inside with strangers “might be worth reconsidering.”
Susan Michaels-Strasser, an assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center’s epidemiology department, encouraged families with young children to carry on with their vacation plans, as long as they take the right precautions.
“You weigh your benefits and your costs. Children over this past year have really lost a lot,” she said. “Life is not all or nothing. Do it wisely, use common sense.”
►Are crowds safe as delta variant spreads:Experts explain COVID risks at common gatherings
Where can I travel with unvaccinated kids?
Michaels-Strasser said risk levels will vary based on where families travel and what sort of activities they do.
Families should look at the transmission rates at their destination before committing to travel, she said. She suggested shifting toward open-air settings like beaches or exploring socially distanced venues that enforce mask-wearing, like museums.
“Any movement where people are coming in contact with others, the risk is there,” Michaels-Strasser said. “But it’s within a parent’s ability to reduce that risk as much as possible.”
►CDC’s COVID map:High transmission areas where you need to wear a mask indoors
Should vaccinated adults travel if they have unvaccinated children?
The CDC says it’s safer to travel if vaccinated, but should parents with young children go on solo trips?
Bengtson said it’s hard to make a blanket statement that applies to every situation. Risk will depend on how much the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is circulating in the destination and the vaccination status of the people in the area.
Health experts say it is possible for fully vaccinated parents to bring home the virus to their unvaccinated children. They recommend parents wear a mask in public, but they can take the mask off around their children when they get home.
“We are seeing increasing rates of children with the delta variant and children who are sick, partly because of the fact that this particular variant is so much more contagious,” said Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “On the off chance that I have the delta variant, I don’t want to collect it and then bring it home.”
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, added that COVID-19 infections in young children generally are less severe, but they can play a role in transmission.
What can parents do on vacation to protect their kids?
Health experts suggest families mask up indoors, reduce time inside or at crowded settings and follow social distancing protocols.
“As a parent, knowing that I have a kid that’s unvaccinated, we’re wearing masks indoors in all settings whether they’re required or not,” Bengtson said.
Choosing a vacation spot that enforces a mask mandate or opting to drive instead of fly can also help reduce the risk of transmission, according to Michaels-Strasser.
“It comes back to what we’ve known since the beginning is the most important thing, which is social distancing and wearing masks and reducing the number of people in a crowded space,” she said. “There’s no magic here.”
Testing can also be a handy tool; the CDC suggests unvaccinated travelers test for COVID-19 both before and after trips.
Is the delta variant worse for kids?
The delta variant, which is thought to be as contagious as the chicken pox, is “a large concern,” according to Albert Ko, an epidemiology professor at Yale, but it’s not yet clear if the delta strain poses a greater risk to children than other versions of the virus.
Studies have shown that children are at a lower risk for infection and severe illness from COVID-19 than adults, but their share of new infections seems to be on the rise. Children accounted for only about 2% of new infections in March 2020 but more than 24% of new weekly infections by the end of May, despite accounting for only 16% of the population, according to data by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
More than 4 million children in the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, and at least 358 have died from the disease, according to the pediatrics academy.
As of June 28, more than 4,100 children have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome children, or MIS-C, a rare but dangerous condition the CDC says is associated with COVID-19. Thirty-seven of those patients died.
“In areas of high transmissibility, spreading the virus is certainly a concern (for traveling families),” Ko said.
Experts say parents and other adults can help protect children from getting COVID-19 by getting vaccinated themselves.
When will kids be able to get vaccinated?
Pediatric hospitals and vaccine developers like Pfizer and Moderna are working together to wrap up clinical trials and plan to submit data by early fall.
“Based on that, an emergency use authorization review will be done by the FDA (to see) if the vaccines are safe and effective (for younger children), and, hopefully, they’ll be available sometime in the fall,” Ko said.
In the meantime, Ko said getting those 12 and above vaccinated is “key.” About 58% of eligible people in the U.S. were fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to the CDC.
Contributing: Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY. Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.