How to decide when to take a family trip when your kids aren't vaccinated against COVID-19

Christine Sarkis

For most people, lockdown hasn’t been easy, but at least the choice to stay home was clear. As people start thinking ahead to traveling again, deciding when and how to go back out into the world is less clear.

For adults vaccinated against COVID-19 and unvaccinated kids, things can feel even more confusing. Will there be such a thing as a safe family vacation this summer?

“Even people with identical circumstances and risk tolerances can feel reasonable drawing different conclusions on how safe they might feel with various vacation scenarios,” says Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can resume travel at low risk to themselves, but the agency is still not recommending travel, given rising COVID-19 case counts.

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How you travel will matter

Even in pre-pandemic times, travelers understood that some family vacation activities came with more inherent risk. Getting a cold from the germy surfaces on an airplane was always a possibility. Buffets have a reputation as a potentially risky meal choice on a family cruise. And you’d be hard-pressed to find cautious travelers engaging in high-risk activities such as bungee jumping. 

Thinking about traveling this summer requires the same type of safety calculations that travelers have always made.  Not all travel is the same when it comes to risk. 

Blumberg offers this example: “Going camping or staying at a rental house is safe now (because) the family is distanced from others in these situations. Vacations at more crowded destinations are a different story.” 

A theme park or group tour “might result in situations where you can’t social distance from others, and others may not be masking,” Blumberg says. Choosing family travel destinations that give you a physical buffer from others and build in plenty of fresh air will be a key part of vacation safety this year. 

The mode of travel matters. “You can distance from others in your car,” Blumberg says, “but traveling by plane, rail or bus results in sometimes unavoidable crowding with others who may not be masking consistently, increasing risk of infection.” 

The CDC notes that “airports, airplanes, bus stations, buses, train stations, trains, public transport, gas stations, and rest stops are all places where physical distancing may be challenging and ventilation may be poor.” 

Whether you're vaccinated or not, the CDC recommends continuing to avoid crowds, staying at least 6 feet from anyone not in your traveling party and wearing a mask over your nose and mouth in public. 

Considerations for traveling with unvaccinated kids 

As doses become more widely available, more parents and caregivers will be vaccinated in the coming months. But until kids can get vaccinated, families thinking about travel will have to contend with the challenge of unprotected children. Two weeks after receiving their final dose, fully vaccinated adults will have a low risk of infection. Unvaccinated children will still be vulnerable.

Vulnerability looks different in adults and children. “We know that children are at lower risk of both infection and severe disease if infected,” Blumberg says. “If the children are otherwise healthy, if they do not have underlying conditions or diseases that increase risk for severe disease, then families may choose to travel even if the children are not vaccinated.” 

If you do travel, it’s important to keep up on emerging news about coronavirus variants. “A lot of the risk in the future will depend on how the variants and vaccine protection plays out,” Blumberg says. 

If you’re considering air travel with kids, making sure adults and kids mask effectively is vital. If the flight is long enough that kids will need to be unmasked to eat or drink, do so strategically by having seatmates take turns unmasking. “The highest risk for possible transmission is if people in close proximity are both unmasked at the same time," Blumberg says. 

What about visiting grandparents? 

Is it possible that the year without grandparents is finally drawing to a close? Blumberg says yes, families can visit with grandparents – with caveats: “As long as the kids are healthy and do not have risks for severe disease, then this is now OK (if) the grandparents are fully vaccinated.” 

Grandparents need to have completed the dose schedule of one or two shots, plus have waited two weeks for immunity to develop, before scheduling time to visit with their unvaccinated or partially vaccinated family. 

The CDC elaborates on the grandparent scenario, giving the example that “fully vaccinated grandparents can visit indoors with their unvaccinated healthy daughter and her healthy children without wearing masks or physical distancing, provided none of the unvaccinated family members are at risk of severe COVID-19.” 

The CDC cautions that some variations make the scenario less safe: “If fully vaccinated grandparents are visiting with their unvaccinated daughter and her children, and the daughter’s unvaccinated neighbors also come over, the visit should then take place outdoors, wearing well-fitted masks, and maintaining physical distance (at least six feet). This is due to the risk the two unvaccinated households pose to one another.”

Whether you’re considering a vacation, a family visit or a camping trip this summer, it’s important to take safety measures such as wearing masks.

“The vaccines do not provide 100% protection, so masking provides an extra layer of defense,” Blumberg says. The CDC says that fully vaccinated people and unvaccinated people should follow guidance to protect themselves and others, including by “wearing a well-fitted mask, physical distancing (at least six feet), avoiding crowds, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, covering coughs and sneezes, (and) washing hands often.”

Family travel is on the horizon again, but summer vacations will require a measured approach, a dose of caution and some creativity.

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