How to reduce your child’s COVID-19 risk if they’re too young to be vaccinated

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(NEW YORK) — While all adults in the United States are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, parents with young children find themselves in an uncomfortable limbo state. Fully vaccinated parents are protected against the virus, but their kids under 12 aren’t even eligible for a shot.

While children are less likely to have serious infection than in adults, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noting that “most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or have no symptoms at all,” in rare instances, children have developed severe COVID-19 cases that led to hospitalization or death.

As of early June, 4,000 children nationwide had developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare but serious condition associated with COVID-19. There’s also an element of uncertainty associated with any COVID-19 infection, since the long-term health consequences of having COVID-19 are not yet known.

Navigating kids and COVID is complicated. Come fall, vaccines are likely to be approved for children younger than 12, but until then, some parents are wondering how to keep their kids safe as guidelines about masks and social distancing loosen.

ABC News spoke with Dr. Judith Flores, a pediatrician and former chief of ambulatory care at NYC Health + Hospitals, who has been in practice for more than 30 years, about how parents can lower their kids’ COVID risk.

Q: My kid is going back to school in person this year. What do I need to know?

You should start planning and ask questions, Flores says.

“I would also inquire who is vaccinated at school and keep an eye on what their environmental controls are,” Flores said.

According to the CDC’s guidelines for K-12 schools, “consistent and correct use of face masks reduces the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and, with some exceptions, is recommended for use indoors among people aged 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated.” The CDC also recommends handwashing, improving ventilation, staying home if sick, social distancing and testing in schools to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Depending on school guidance and your risk tolerance as a parent, send your child to school with a mask. Flores noted that if she had a small child, she would have them wear a mask at school, especially in the beginning, while you determine whether or not the school is doing a good job of keeping the environment safe.

But ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that schools have been reasonably safe settings so far.

“It’s been well documented that kids get sicker when they’re home with family,” Flores said.

Despite that reality, some parents are rightfully nervous. Flores works with families that were hit hard by COVID-19’s initial wave in New York City. Some parents and children are anxious about returning in person, she explained, adding that behavioral and mental health support are critical, especially for kids who lost family members during the pandemic.

“It’s not just, ‘let’s make sure we have your supply list for the teacher this year,'” she said. “You really have to prepare your children mentally — and yourself,” she said.

Q: Is there anything I can do to lower my child’s COVID risk until they’re eligible for a vaccine?

“The best way to take care of your child is for you, your family and your community to be vaccinated,” Flores stressed. “Your kid’s risk goes up depending on the community you live in or go to school in. If your community has a low vaccination rate and high infection rate, there’s a greater risk your child will get sick.”

“If I were in Mississippi, I’d be very concerned, because the vaccination rate is low. So there, I’d keep a mask on my child and keep social distancing. If I lived in Massachusetts, I might breathe a little easier,” she said.

Mississippi’s vaccination rate trails the national average. As of Monday, 37% of residents had received at least one dose, and 33% were fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, compared with 71% of people in Massachusetts who’ve gotten at least one shot and 63% who are fully vaccinated.

Your child doesn’t need to wear a mask in most outdoor settings because the risk of transmission is low, Flores noted, but it’s a good idea to have them wear one in indoor public spaces, especially if ventilation is poor or if the space is crowded.

The same fundamental practices the CDC recommends for schools, like handwashing and social distancing, are useful for reducing kids’ risk in non-school settings. You can also model wearing a mask for your child, even if you’re vaccinated and don’t technically need one yourself. If you’re not going to wear a mask around your child, having a conversation as a family explaining why masks are important is key, Flores suggested.

“This is an added protection for you. Just like I would put a seatbelt on you, I would put a mask on you for this time,” she said. “Kids understand seatbelts.”

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