Last year was tough for parents during the pandemic. (Think: More remote learning, parents leaving their jobs, and day care staff storages.) But some parents saw a glimmer of hope for their kids. In May, the FDA and CDC gave emergency use authorization to Pfizer's vaccine for children ages 12 to 17. Both agencies then extended the approval for five- to 11-year-olds in October.
Despite the availability, many parents have been reluctant to get their children vaccinated. Especially those with young kids. A September survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a third of parents with kids ages five to 11 said they would “wait and see” how the vaccine is working before getting their kid a shot. And one in four parents said they definitely wouldn’t get their youngsters vaccinated.
Since then, things have gotten Omicrazy, with the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreading rapidly. Here’s how the latest wave in cases has impacted kids.
Omicron's Impact on Hospitalizations and Schools Reopening
Omicron has fueled a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations among children in the US — amplifying concerns about the rates of unvaccinated kiddos. CDC data shows that between Dec. 27 and Jan. 2, average daily hospitalizations for children increased by more than 114% nationwide, compared to the previous week. Let that sink in.
A grim example: Texas Children’s Hospital (aka the state’s largest hospital for kiddos) said that their COVID-19 pediatric hospitalizations rose by 200% since Christmas. And that 90% of those children hospitalized had contracted the Omicron variant. Which checks out: the CDC said Omicron makes up 98% of COVID cases as of Jan. 8.
Yet, more than 75% of kiddos ages five to 11 years remain unvaccinated. Same goes for nearly 40% of kids ages 12 to 17, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The org’s president said that the majority of children currently being hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated. And the CDC has previously warned that unvaccinated children were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than those vaxxed.
On another depressing note, conditions may not improve soon. Experts say numbers will worsen as schools reopen for the semester. And how to handle school reopenings has caused friction in some communities. Given the alarming increase in cases, schools across the nation have begun shifting plans. Major school districts in Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin, and more, temporarily shifted to remote learning or postponed their return from winter break. But two of the country’s largest school districts — New York City and Chicago — are keeping their ‘open’ signs up.
In NYC, Mayor Eric Adams has said that “the safest place for children is in a school building.” While the city has implemented a new testing system to keep IRL classes going, about 300,000 NYC students on average missed class the week after the holiday break. And parents, teachers, and students are torn about whether schools should be open.
In Chicago, a disagreement between the public school system and teachers union resulted in days of canceled classes. Teachers demanded a weekly testing program for students. Or a return to remote learning. Like Adams, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, "students need to be back in person as soon as possible…That's what the science supports. We will not relent." The school district and teachers have reached a deal on reopening, including upping the supply of KN95 masks and allowing remote learning on a school-by-school basis.
Psst…Can’t figure out which mask is best for you? Check out our guide.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona agreed with the mayors’ sentiments. Pushing for in-person learning, he said, “we have better tools than we had in the past" to safely keep kids in school. He also emphasized how remote learning affects mental health — highlighting the "impact on children when they are not at school, when they [are] home alone, when they [aren’t] with their peers…”
And he’s not wrong. Children are not only facing physical challenges amid COVID, but mental too. The isolation, fear, and chaos surrounding the pandemic has caused a mental health crisis with kids.
Taking action: Multiple medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health. And in December, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory highlighting America’s youth mental health crisis. Particularly, the increased rates in childhood depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Also alarming: adolescent suicides spiked.
The surgeon general’s advisory has a list of tips and resources for supporting children’s mental health. Including how to create strong, stable relationships with kids and how to encourage them to build them too.
Psst…Check out our tips on how to manage stress.
How to Protect Your Kids
The top suggestion from the CDC? Get vaccinated. Including parents, so they can better protect their children. Everyone five years and older is eligible. And amid the influx of hospitalizations, the FDA has cleared the Pfizer booster for those ages 12 and up.
Guidelines for unvaccinated family members can get tricky. At the end of the day, the CDC returns to its tried-and-true mantra: ‘mask up.’ Here’s what else experts recommend...
When at home
Experts seem to agree that vaccinated parents and their unvaccinated kids don’t need to wear masks around the house other as long as they are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
For parents of newborns: The CDC suggests introducing babies to guests (outside of your pandemic bubble) virtually. Or outdoors at a distance. Children under the age of two should not wear a mask or face shield, as they increase the risk of suffocation.
When leaving home
Wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone in your family, even those vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in areas of high transmission. They even say it couldn’t hurt to have everyone in your family wear a mask indoors in public regardless of transmission level. The agency also suggests parents wear a mask to set an example.
When it comes to spending time with friends outside your household, opt for outdoors. While it’s undoubtedly safer than hanging out indoors, the CDC says it’s safest to wear a mask outside if you can’t stay at least six feet apart. Especially with how contagious the Omicron variant is.
When at school
School districts, cities, and states have different guidelines for students and teachers in K-12 schools. (Here’s a helpful map to check where states stand on school mask mandates.) But the CDC recommends universal indoor masking for ages two years and older — regardless of vax status. And says that testing, ventilation, practicing good hygiene (aka washing your hands), and staying home when sick can also help keep schools safe.
Experts say this is a situation where families should assess the risk based on their own circumstances and determine whether they feel comfortable traveling. They also say that if people do travel, they may want to consider less risky options. Like driving a car instead of flying, or planning outdoor excursions instead of staying indoors. Another tip: Families should do their research before booking a trip or traveling. Places may have testing, quarantine, or vaccine requirements for travelers.
If you have any other questions or concerns, talk to your child's pediatrician.
The COVID-19 variants are keeping the pandemic as unpredictable as ever. And with Omicron, kids are facing the brunt of the virus. With vaccines widely available for children, experts recommend getting them in line. But if your kids are unvaccinated, grab a mask and err on the side of caution. Because the virus doesn’t discriminate.
Updated on Jan. 11 to include Chicago and NYC school reopenings amid Omicron.
Updated on Jan. 6 to include updates on Omicron and child hospitalization rates.
Sign up for the Daily Skimm email newsletter. Delivered to your inbox every morning and prepares you for your day in minutes.