Can You Travel This Summer With Your Unvaccinated Child?

Families planning spring and summer travel can take steps to reduce risk, even though children can’t yet be vaccinated

Photo: Leo Rivas/Unsplash

As the U.S. vaccine rollout continues its slow march across the country, spring follows in its wake. That means parents are facing the arrival of spring break and, quick on its heels, the advent of summer. In the meantime, although trials of coronavirus vaccines in children are now underway, late summer is likely the earliest vaccines will be available for people under age 16 years.

In contrast, the adults in a family will theoretically be able to access vaccines by May 1, per the Biden administration. What are completely vaccinated parents to do about travel and vacation and summertime jaunts after a year of massive uncertainty and delayed family visits?

Last week, economist Emily Oster, PhD, made a few waves when she wrote on this topic for The Atlantic in an article entitled, “Your Unvaccinated Kid Is Like a Vaccinated Grandma.” The piece offers a bit more nuance than that headline, but as journalist Tara Haelle unpacks here, the arguments that Oster makes, related in part to low rates of severe disease and deaths among children, are not quite as clear-cut as they come across.

A high-level view of risk based on averages glosses over individual risk differences among children because of social disparities and other factors. And there’s the fact that children who pick up the virus, including increasingly circulating “variants of concern,” can transmit it to others. In the end, no single number can capture the highly personal risk calculations that each family must make in deciding whether to travel with unvaccinated children.

As blanket advice, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently advises everyone to stay put, advice it has not changed even with the vaccine rollout. If people feel that they must travel, the agency says to wait until two weeks after they’ve received their second dose (for two-dose regimens). Obviously, families with children can’t meet this threshold in the absence of a pediatric vaccine.

No need to despair, necessarily, about that nonrefundable Airbnb you booked in a burst of freewheeling optimism. Experts told NPR that families with children might be able to indulge fairly safely in a spring getaway or a summer trip if they mitigate risks as much as possible every step of the way. But, the experts cautioned, there’s no such thing as zero risk.

The bottom line is that traveling with children remains a Covid-19 risk, especially in the absence of pediatric vaccines.

Personal factors make every family’s decision singular, including considerations of pre-existing conditions and risk factors. In children, especially younger ones, Covid-19 symptoms tend to be milder and risks are generally lower for severe disease. But that’s not always the case: Children can become quite ill with Covid-19 or a related inflammatory condition called MIS-C, and there have been deaths.

To protect infants from pertussis before they are old enough to be vaccinated against it, we use a tactic called cocooning: Everyone who might have contact with the infant is vaccinated to create a protective cocoon around the baby. Traveling with children to visit loved ones this coming spring and summer may need to follow a similar cocoon or “bubble” strategy of having all adults around the children vaccinated.

In addition to vaccinating all eligible family members, taking a private car is less risky than using congregant travel settings such as planes or trains. Location matters, too. Trips that involve a lot of outdoor time in wide open spaces, such as the beach, likely don’t add much to risk, experts told NBC News. But stay off of cruise ships and their unavoidable close spaces with unvaccinated children.

Along with considerations of physical landscape, your destination’s Covid-19 landscape is important, too. Some locales are more high risk than others. Risk can climb if all restrictions on masks and public gatherings have been lifted even when test positivity, hospitalizations, and deaths have not bottomed out. With variants of unknown import building transmission momentum, avoiding crowds and attractions that draw people from all over remains a risk-mitigation measure.

Who awaits you at your destination also matters. The CDC has given the go-ahead for small gatherings of people, even if some are unvaccinated. The risk mitigation comes with attention to the word “small,” experts have cautioned.

The CDC guidelines also say that vaccinated grandparents can have indoor visits without masks with unvaccinated family members who aren’t at high risk for severe Covid-19. But masks otherwise remain a must for the vaccinated and unvaccinated for the months to come.

The bottom line is that traveling with children remains a Covid-19 risk, especially in the absence of pediatric vaccines. Every family has to decide on their own whether they’re willing to take that risk or would rather wait perhaps a few months longer.

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Emily Willingham

Emily Willingham

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Journalist, author, Texan, biologist. I write All About Us (we=us), All About Adolescence (our longest growth stage), & All About Aging (we’re all doing it).