The CDC’s New Mask Rules Leave Kids Out. Here’s How to Fix That.

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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made waves when it announced last week that vaccinated people can doff their masks. But one group of people has no hope of doing so: kids, for whom vaccines are still largely not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration. Only the Pfizer shot is authorized for kids as young as 12. So while adults may celebrate going back to their normal lives, we’re still asking kids to observe all the rules of pandemic life. 

They’ve been taken out of school or made to take extraordinary precautions there, isolated from their friends, deprived of many sports and other activities, and made to endure mask-wearing and social distancing, even outside. Add to that the hardships their families have faced from the economic disruption caused by the pandemic.

And they’ve done it all to protect older people. The death rate from Covid-19 is 3,200 times higher in seniors than in children. For kids, the disease is comparable to influenza. 

Because adults are all now eligible for the vaccines — and have been for at least a month in most places — it’s time to stop asking kids to make sacrifices to protect older people.

This starts with letting kids unmask, too, at least outside. There’s long been evidence that outdoor transmission is extremely unlikely. And the vaccines are so effective at preventing hospitalization and death that kids are astronomically unlikely to infect someone’s vaccinated grandma while they’re playing on a beach or riding bikes or at summer camp. And as some doctors are starting to acknowledge, keeping kids away from their friends, masked or indoors, is taking a toll on their physical and emotional health. 

Nor should schools force kids to get vaccinated as a way to build up immunity for adults’ benefit. Better now to have the large number of unvaccinated adults get their shot to protect the kids.

The only reason kids should be vaccinated is to improve their health. It’s possible the Covid vaccines will do that if they prove to be extremely safe and effective. The clinical trials for kids can’t yield much data on whether the vaccines prevent severe disease or death because such cases are so uncommon to begin with. Even Covid’s much-feared multisystem inflammatory syndrome has turned out to be quite rare.

While some epidemiologists have pointed out that we vaccinate kids for influenza, with a similar death toll, the important distinction is that flu shots are optional. We don’t hold kids’ lives hostage if they don’t get them. 

Continuing restrictions for unvaccinated kids could cause their misery to drag on for months, since surveys show that a high percentage of parents are worried about vaccine safety and plan to delay vaccinating their kids for Covid-19. 

The better way to protect kids is for adults to step up and get the vaccine. That’s right — after 15 months of asking kids to sacrifice to save older lives, it’s time for older Americans to do their part for the kids. 

This approach has been proven to work in Israel, where more than 60% of adults were vaccinated during a massive wave of disease. Soon, cases dropped by 99% across all age groups. Though kids under 16 weren’t vaccinated, there’s so little virus in circulation that they are now very unlikely to get infected — and they are already unlikely to become severely ill if they do. 

That data suggest that if we get as many adults vaccinated here in the U.S., children are unlikely to provide a “reservoir” of the virus that could prolong the pandemic. That was more of a worry when scientists thought vaccines might only prevent symptomatic illness — now we know they drastically reduce the odds of transmission, too.

There’s still some reason for concern surrounding the small number of adults with immunity-compromising conditions who aren’t responding to the vaccine — something doctors can test for by measuring antibodies. The vaccines do work in many immunocompromised people, but where they don’t, it might be reasonable to vaccinate kids who are in contact with them.

Some people have argued that the situation does not meet standards for the FDA to grant an emergency-use authorization because, for kids, the disease itself is not an emergency. That’s a somewhat different, thornier question from whether the vaccines should be required for school, or even for being allowed to play unmasked, as is now the case for adults. And it’s important to keep in mind that high vaccination rates in adults will reduce everyone’s risk by driving down the amount of virus in circulation.

A trio of doctors writing in the Atlantic recently suggested delaying childhood Covid vaccines and sending those doses to India. That’s another good reason to make childhood vaccination optional — freeing up doses in the U.S. would very likely save the most lives. 

The only restrictions on kids should be ones that protect kids — and there should be at least a minimal amount of evidence that such restrictions would help. Children have already been put through far too much in the name of protecting adults. Let’s turn things around now, and ask adults who’ve yet to be vaccinated to step up, and help lower case counts even more to protect the kids. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and host of the podcast "Follow the Science." She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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