No, Your Children Aren’t Already ‘Basically Vaccinated’ Against COVID-19

Photo: Getty Images / Justin Paget
Children only account for 11.7 of COVID-19 cases and less than 0.2 percent of related deaths. While those numbers sound small, that's still more than 2.6 million cases and 321 deaths since the start of the pandemic. The COVID-19 risk level for children is low, but infectious disease epidemiologist Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, says that doesn't mean it's comparable to that of a fully vaccinated adult, a claim Brown University economist Emily Oster, PhD, made in articles published by Slate and The Atlantic last week.

"You can't be 'basically vaccinated.' You're either vaccinated or you're not," Rivera tells Well+Good. "There were continual themes, persistent themes throughout the articles suggesting that being a kid is like a vaccine, which is just truly an unscientific and not true statement. We know that kids can get the virus. We know that kids can transmit the virus."

Experts In This Article
  • Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS is an infectious disease epidemiologist and microbiologist. She is the science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project.

It's also too early to assume that herd immunity will protect unvaccinated children.

"In every calculation of herd immunity, the pediatric population is considered," says Rivera. "Herd immunity will be reached when more than 70 percent of the population is covered. We have almost a quarter of our population that is minors, so we have to remember the fact that it's unlikely we'll achieve herd immunity this year until we have at least some of the pediatric population vaccinated."

The point of this comparison was so parents could feel comfortable taking their kids to barbecues or on vacation this summer. But Rivera says it's not that simple.

"Kids can be asymptomatic carriers and they can be symptomatic carriers, too" says Rivera. "They can bring it home from school to infect their families. It's just really unfortunate to make any sweeping generalizations about the pediatric population to give parents this licensed to have high-risk behavior."

Rivera's scientific assessment doesn't mean you can't go anywhere with your kids this summer. But your risk calculation should be based on science.

"I am not trying to tell parents, 'you cannot do XYZ.' Everything has to be about risk mitigation," says Rivera. "Everything has to be about calculating your individual risk, your family risk, and the risk of the place that you're going. And if you can make an informed choice and feel you're comfortable with that, that's great." Rivera recommends car travel over plane travel, and if you must travel by plane, she suggests budgeting time for quarantining and testing.

It'll be some time before people younger than 16 can get vaccinated, but we're getting close, with some states rolling out the vaccines faster than others.

"Moderna just opened its trials for kids six months and older, that's going to be such an amazing opportunity to get rich data," says Rivera. "They're going to enroll almost 7,000 participants from six months and up. And that could mean that we start seeing really rich data by the winter of this year, hopefully. So, it's not like they have been forgotten. Nobody is saying we can't do anything until the kids are vaccinated. We're saying we need to be very vigilant. We have variants circulating. The adult population is not nearly vaccinated enough yet. So, let's just stay the course—we'll get there."

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