Photo Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images
I gave birth to my son in July, just as the Delta variant was starting to scare people. At first I was not wildly worried, at least for my immediate circle of friends. I was vaccinated while I was pregnant, and so did almost everyone else I knew. (I was also worried about other things, like I would never sleep again.)
But then I started hearing about breakthrough cases. And higher hospitalization rates for children. And confusing information – did this variant make people sicker? Or was it just more contagious? Or both? And how common were these breakthrough infections really? Did I mention I was tired?
To get better answers – or at least to find out how to assess COVID risks for babies and toddlers, which will soon be the only age groups that can not be vaccinated – I talked to several experts about how to stay safe without losing your mind. Here’s what they told me.
In short, no, says Emily Oster, an economist who studies health economics at Brown and is the author of the best-selling ParentData books. (I recommend her newsletter, which analyzes new research on pregnancy and parenting, COVID-related, and more.) “There is this story that Delta is really dangerous for children, much more dangerous than previous variants. But that’s not true in the numbers. “There is nothing in the data to suggest that the number of hospitalizations for children has increased in any meaningful way.”
More and more children is becomes ill, which is why the numbers are confusing: the Delta variant is more transmissible than previous strains, so it has infected more people, including more children. But – and this is an important difference – Delta does not seem to make these children sicker than previous forms of the virus. “The number of infections in children reflects their share of the population,” says Dr. Vijay Prasad, a pediatrician with Tribeca Pediatrics.
The reason you may have heard that pediatric intensive care units are filling up is that these facilities are generally small (pediatric beds make up less than 2 percent of the beds in the intensive care system in the United States, according to a 2010 study). “The pediatric healthcare system is not designed for a stream of children in need of hospitalization, so capacity was limited,” explains Dr. Prasad. This became a serious problem in places like Texas, which suddenly had to deal with a bunch of sick kids on top of the Delta wave. But the fact is that the Delta variant is no more likely to place your child in the hospital than any other form of COVID, and the risk of severe COVID in children remains much lower than it is for other age groups.
It is true that very young babies are more prone to bacteria-related issues because their immune system is so new and undeveloped. But they are also less likely to come in contact with bacteria because they do not go around touching things. And once babies are a few months old, they become part of the lowest risk group for getting COVID, says Dr. Allison Messina, Head of the Infectious Diseases Department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. (The lowest risk group is zero- to 4-year-olds, followed by 5- to 11-year-olds.)
“Throughout the pandemic, the most critically ill children we see are unvaccinated, older teens with COVID,” she adds. “And it’s even more sad, because it’s children who could have been vaccinated, but they were not.”
If you are vaccinated while you are pregnant, your baby will get antibodies through the placenta. These antibodies are protective, but they disappear after a few months, says Dr. Messina.
(Note that this is not the same for you, the vaccinated person. The vaccines teach your T cells, which are part of your immune system, to produce antibodies. So even after the active antibodies decay, your T cells remember “” how to make them, and can do it quickly to fight the infection before it makes you very ill.Your baby will not have this ability until they themselves are vaccinated.)
It may sound scary that your baby loses immunity after a few months. But keep in mind that the early months are when babies have the weakest immune system, so your antibodies will overcome them until they are older and stronger, says Dr. Messina.
Some. But it is difficult to say exactly how much and the research is underway. “In a study that tested breast milk six weeks after vaccination, they found high antibody levels,” says Dr. Prasad. “It is not as good as getting the actual vaccine while the baby is in the womb, which gives direct access to antibodies. But it is something. “
The one time I brought my baby to a grocery store, I draped a mussel blanket over his head to try to protect him from potential bacteria. (He slept and didn’t care.) Was that ridiculous?
In fact, no, says Dr. Danielle Zerr, Head of Infectious Diseases and Virology at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “If you put a barrier between your baby and other people – whether it’s a draped blanket or a baby carrier that has a windshield or cover – you keep some large drops away from the baby and out of the air as the baby breathes.” This is not as effective as a vaccine or a mask (which of course is not recommended or is safe for children under 2 years of age). But it is also not a total waste of energy. “If you’re in a crowded scenario that you can not avoid, these strategies make sense to me.”
That said, taking your child to the grocery store is not as embarrassing as you might think. “The chance of your infant getting COVID in the grocery store is really, really small,” Oster says. “If someone with COVID got up in their face and coughed on them, then yes, okay, maybe. But it’s a pretty well ventilated room, and you’re probably not that close to other people. COVID doesn’t lurk around waiting to jump. on your baby. “
This is difficult as toddlers and young children tend to take a lot of bacteria home from daycare or kindergarten. But if that’s any consolation, those bacteria are probably not COVID, Oster says. “In most of Europe, they have had daycare centers and kindergartens open during much of the pandemic, and they do not mask children under the age of 5. And these children still had a much lower risk of getting COVID than the older children, even the older children, wearing masks. ” Still, strict hand washing is always a good idea.
Remember the basics. “An exposure is defined as within six feet for a cumulative period of 15 minutes over 24 hours,” says Dr. Prasad. So don’t worry so much about the sniffing, masked man stroking past your stroller on CVS; Instead, focus on avoiding situations where your child is close to a potentially infected person for an extended period of time.
Above all, you want to make sure (whenever possible) that everyone who comes in contact with your baby is vaccinated. Of course, there is a very small chance that they may have a breakthrough infection without knowing it. But even if that happens, a vaccinated person is still less likely to be highly contagious, even with the Delta variant. “There is a need for more research into breakthrough infections,” Oster says. “But I think what we’re going to learn is that vaccinated people are really unlikely to spread COVID aggressively to other people if they are asymptomatic.”
And finally, your own mental health is also part of keeping your kids safe. “There are considerations beyond COVID that are worth remembering,” Oster says. So create boundaries that work for you, and remember that you can always adjust them as you go.