Can We Take a Family Vacation If Our Kids Haven’t Received the COVID-19 Vaccine Yet?

Kathleen Porter Kristiansen, an American living in London, likes to practice “flying” in the living room with her sons, 3 and 5, before a trip. She pulls out the ride-on suitcases that they use to zip around airports, grabs iPads and snacks, and tells them to imagine they’re cruising at 30,000 feet. This year, however, the game has shifted, and now involves wearing a mask for as long as they want to pretend being on the airplane.

The boys have gotten good at masking up for hours on end, but Kristiansen still worries. She hopes to take her family to a wedding in Mammoth, California, this July, but the prospect of getting there—particularly the connecting flights in the U.S. where passengers can be squeezed together—is keeping her up at night.

“I just picture us crammed into a flight within the United States and honestly I’m scared,” she says. “What if my three-year-old won’t wear his mask?”

She and her husband will be vaccinated against COVID-19, but it will still be many months before there is a pediatric vaccine available for her boys. Traveling around the U.S., she knows, presents a different risk of exposure for her children than it does for vaccinated adults.

Kristiansen is not alone in her concerns. One in three American adults has now received at least one jab of the COVID-19 vaccine. But for those adults who have children, there’s a conundrum: Is it safe to travel around the U.S. before the kids can be vaccinated, too?

Much of the answer, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at the Covid Tracking Project, depends on the destination.

“There’s a huge equity factor when it comes to travel,” she says. “What does access to vaccines look like in the destination you want to visit?”

The good news, according to Rivera, is that not only are children not considered high-risk for infection from COVID, they are not considered high-risk for transmitting the virus, either. But before traveling this summer, everyone—both families with kids and fully vaccinated individuals—needs to consider how well-vaccinated the public is in the place they want to go.

“You make a lot of assumptions about healthcare infrastructure and people’s health when you get on a plane,” she says. “But if you’re going from one community where most people are vaccinated, to another community where most people are vaccinated, you can do that relatively safely.”

There’s one easy shift parents can make to dial down the risk, says Dr. Ilan Shapiro, a Los Angeles-based pediatrician. The “bubble” or “pod,” which helped many families ride out the darkest months of the pandemic, should stay in effect when you hit the road as well.

“The more contact we have with people, the higher the probability of sharing or getting the COVID-19 virus,” he says. “So rent a house instead of a hotel. It’s safer to be in your car than to fly. Limit the amount of touch points with other people.”

Above all, until there is a pediatric vaccine, caution is key—particularly when you don’t know most of the people around you.

“If you’re at a resort, you never know who you’re encountering,” says Dr. Sharona Hoffman, a professor of both law and medicine at Case Western University. “Now is not the time to remove all restrictions or feel you are free to act as you please just because the adults are vaccinated.”

To play it safe, Kristiansen decided to book direct flights from London to San Francisco, skipping a long-awaited stop in her hometown in Maine. Her family will drive from San Francisco International Airport to Mammoth, but only after quarantining while they wait for the results of COVID rapid tests. Pending negative tests, they’ll head to Mammoth, where they plan to stick to their COVID precautions: lots of mask-wearing, lots of hand-washing, and trying to prevent the amount of time their kids spend indoors with new people, without masks.

As for getting her children to wear their masks without a struggle, there’s no straightforward answer. But there are a few things that can make it easier: experts recommend introducing mask-wearing to children in small increments, slowly building up the amount of time they spend wearing them, just as Kristiansen has been doing during the family’s “flights” in the living room. Making it fun—by letting your child choose from a selection of playful designs or decorate them with stickers—can go a long way, too.

And remember: No matter where you travel with your children, it’s important for both their mental and physical health to spend lots of time outside. When Kristiansen’s kids want to play with any new friends they might meet at the wedding, her plan is not to fight it, but rather just send them into the fresh air, where transmission is much less likely. “We plan to be mindful and mostly stay outside when the kids play,” she says. “And the bride has assured me that most of the guests will be vaccinated.”

We’re reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find our latest coronavirus coverage here, or visit our complete guide to COVID-19 and travel.

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