As waves of the coronavirus battered the U.S., parents of young kids could comfort themselves with the knowledge that COVID-19 tends to have milder effects in children and that most — but not all — kids who get infected are fine.
But even though it's low-risk, many parents don't want to gamble with their kids' health. And others might be more worried that their kids will spread COVID-19 to elderly or immunocompromised loved ones who might not fare as well.
Now the highly contagious omicron variant is sending case counts through the roof, and most young kids are not yet vaccinated. Children under 5 are still ineligible for vaccinations, and as of Dec. 29, only 23% of kids 5 to 11, and 53% of 12- to 17-year-olds, are fully inoculated in the United States.
With so many unknowns, how do we balance protecting our families and retaining a sense of normalcy?
We asked experts how parents of unvaccinated children should navigate the omicron surge. They acknowledged that it's a tough situation and emphasized that many of these decisions will differ based on each family's vulnerability and risk tolerance. Here's what they advise.
What has changed with omicron?
-- Omicron is much more infectious than previous variants, but so far seems to be less severe. "The numbers of cases are just so high, really everywhere," said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "And if they're not high yet, they will be high. It's incredibly transmissible."
As a result, more children are being hospitalized with COVID-19. However, experts believe the increase correlates with the skyrocketing number of people getting infected, not the severity of disease the variant causes in kids.
This follows the natural progression of viruses, explained Dr. Catherine Le, an infectious disease physician at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center. Viruses mutate in order to survive, but they won't survive if they kill off their hosts. So over time, they generally evolve to be more infectious but less dangerous.
-- Symptoms with omicron could be slightly different. "These are early days in the omicron pandemic, but it seems like we are seeing more upper respiratory tract symptoms, including croup in children," said Dr. Grace M. Aldrovandi, professor and chief of infectious diseases at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. "Generally, symptoms in children are less severe than in adults, and they may have more gastrointestinal symptoms, compared to adults with COVID."