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The COVID dilemma: How vaccinated parents are negotiating life with unvaccinated kids

Younger children won’t be eligible for shots for months

Tim Langan posed at his home in Somerville with his two sons, Max (left), 9, and Dylan, 8.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As many in Massachusetts mark the easing of pandemic restrictions with parties, vacations, and other social gatherings, one enormous group is feeling left behind: families with children under the age of 12.

Young people ages 12 to 15 became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations this week, but hundreds of thousands of younger children are not — and likely won’t be for months. That’s leaving countless families uncertain about when and where it’s safe to play, eat, and just go about their lives — even after most adults are vaccinated.

Young children are much less likely to become severely ill from COVID, but it does happen. And guidance about what’s safe seems to be constantly changing, forcing vaccinated parents with unvaccinated children to make countless calculations of everyday risks when venturing out.


Take Tim Langan and his family in Somerville. They recently loosened their family COVID restrictions after Tim, his parents, and his wife completed their shots in the past month — but just a little. The couple’s two sons, aged 8 and 9, are not vaccinated.

“We only went to a restaurant inside for the first time last week,” said Langan, who resumed bringing his boys to outdoor parks again earlier this spring, weeks after many other children had already returned.

Now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has eased indoor and outdoor mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, Langan will be having a delicate conversation with his sons.

“We have to explain the science to them and say adults are vaccinated and [scientists] are working on a vaccine for kids, and eventually you won’t have to wear a mask,” Langan said. “But for right now you have to keep it on.”

Langan is quick to acknowledge that continued COVID restrictions take a toll on their children’s well-being. Pre-pandemic, the Langans most weekends would bring their sons to a park or the indoor Legoland Discovery Center in Somerville, an activity that has been off limits to them for more than a year. As the pandemic months dragged on, his boys were going “stir crazy” sheltering in the house, and Langan witnessed them growing more anxious.


“Ever since we started going out more, I have seen a huge change,” he said.

Dr. Shannon Scott-Vernaglia, a pediatrician at Mass General Brigham, said a lot of families are struggling to balance the dizzying array of risks and benefits in this half-vaccinated landscape. The weather is improving and children are eager to get back to sports, playing with friends, and other activities, but Scott-Vernaglia said it’s hard for parents to figure out what’s acceptable and what is not.

“There has been so much information over the last year, and it comes so quickly and it ends up with a different spin depending on who you ask,” Scott-Vernaglia said. “It has been an overwhelming time for parents to process.”

She advises families to consider how prevalent COVID-19 is in their community and the number of people participating in the activity they may join in.

She has been encouraging families to spend time with vaccinated grandparents. But Scott-Vernaglia is less inclined to suggest families with unvaccinated children eat at indoor restaurants, instead guiding them to outdoor activities.

Scott-Vernaglia said her family — including a 17-year-old who is vaccinated, and a 15-year-old who is newly eligible — hasn’t even eaten at an outdoor restaurant since last summer, when infection rates were very low. She tells parents that outdoor dining now is reasonably safe, if the community’s infection rates are low, but she understands the anxiety felt by parents with younger children.


“I could envision if I had [an unvaccinated] 10-year-old thinking I will put the vaccinated people on the side of the table closer to the other tables, and the unvaccinated 10-year-old on the far side,” she said.

Adults with COVID-19 are much more likely to become seriously ill, compared to children. Fewer than 2 percent of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which tracked data from 24 states. And as the total number of vaccinated adults and teens grows, the risk of infection to children and others, overall, shrinks.

That’s one reason why some parents of young children say they are hesitant to get their kids vaccinated. They say they are more comfortable with the relatively low risk their child might get severely ill from COVID-19, versus their larger fear that some unknown side effect might bring them harm.

Scientists have stressed the shots have proven safe and effective for adults and that there is no evidence that would be different for children. Federal regulators Wednesday endorsed use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in kids as young as 12.

Pfizer has already said it will seek emergency use authorization for its vaccine for children ages 2 to 11 in September, which means the shots could be available for this age group later this fall, depending on how quickly federal regulators make a decision.


But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that just 30 percent of parents with children aged 12 to 15 said they would vaccinate their kids right away. And that percentage dropped slightly for parents of younger children, with just 27 percent saying they would immediately vaccinate their children aged 5 to 11.

In Brookline, Raymond Fisman said he and his wife, who are both vaccinated, decided their newly eligible 13-year-old daughter will get the shot, but they will still have one child, their 10-year-old son, who will be unvaccinated.

He said both children dearly miss sleepovers with their friends, but the parents are still deciding how it will work for their daughter, when fully vaccinated, to go out, but not their son.

“God forbid one sibling gets something the other doesn’t,” Fisman said.

Yet, they will allow both kids to attend overnight summer camp this year because, Fisman said, everyone is tested for infection multiple times before it starts, easing the risk. That doesn’t happen, he said, for sleepovers.

“We do have summer plans that involve being on Cape Cod in places where we can mostly be outside,” Fisman said. “We don’t plan to be going into restaurants or going on airplanes. That’s where we’re at.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Kelly Horton, a Bedford mother of three boys, ages 3, 6, and 9.


“I am very comfortable with my children indoors and outdoors without a mask,” Horton said. Already, she said, local families drive to New Hampshire, where COVID rules for indoor facilities are more relaxed, because their children can run around without a mask on.

Horton, who recently got her first shot, said she and her husband have kept up with the latest science during the pandemic and made decisions about their children’s activities accordingly.

“I don’t understand why my children can sit in a crowded restaurant without a mask when they are at the table ... but they can’t go to school and kick around a soccer ball at recess without a mask,” she said.

She also has grown disenchanted with remote learning.

“My 3-year-old has not seen the bottom half of classmates’ and teachers’ faces and I worry about the consequences of that,” Horton added.

Aude Henin, codirector of Mass General Brigham’s Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program, said that pandemic rules alone have taken a toll on children and that parents, after considering the latest science, need to decide for themselves what feels safe.

“Keeping kids home and not engaging in activities or peers or family also has an impact,” she said. “So weighing the potential impact of COVID with this prolonged withdrawal from family life is important.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the percentage of children with COVID-19 who were hospitalized.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.