How long should children wear masks? Bay Area Experts weigh in

Most Californians look forward to the day when they can ditch their masks – a marker that the coronavirus pandemic is almost over. But for parents whose children are not yet eligible for vaccination, the state’s June 15 date for dropping rules on facial covers, physical distance and other mitigation measures may signal a new era of anxiety.

“Now every situation will involve a risk assessment which is yet another burden parents will have to shoulder in a year when parents have already been asked to do so much,” said Lisa Boren, a San Francisco resident whose children aged 7 and 9. are younger than the vaccine-approved age of 12 years. “It’s frustrating and deeply exhausting.”

This disappointment is understandable, Bay Area health experts said. Navigating a world without coronavirus controls in place could be difficult for some families.

Although less at risk of serious COVID-19 results, children account for 24% of new weekly cases in the most recent data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics. There have been nearly 4 million infections in children recorded since the start of the pandemic. Variants of viruses such as the one called B.1.1.7, originally found in England, have led to increased transmission in young people. And there is still no clear picture of the long-term impacts of the infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for the flu than for COVID-19. However, infants and children with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for the flu and COVID-19.

“It’s not a completely mild illness,” said Dr Ann Petru, a specialist who cares for children with serious infections at UCSF Benioff children’s hospitals. Nationally, there have been over 3,700 cases of children with confirmed COVID who have developed MIS-C, a multi-system pediatric inflammatory syndrome, which is a potentially fatal disease marked by inflammation of the heart, lungs, brain and other vital organs. “These children can be very sick. Some of them have late symptoms that can drag on for months. “

Malchester Brown IV, 6, watches his father Malchester Brown III, left, chat with a school official as they arrive for the first day of in-person learning at Thornhill Elementary School on Tuesday March 30 2021, in Oakland, California. IV is a kindergarten at school.Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

This month, the CDC says children 12 and under still need to mask themselves at certain times, even when their parents are fully immunized. Vaccinated adults will not need to wear masks or maintain physical distance indoors or outdoors under most circumstances when California adopts the CDC guidelines starting June 15.

Since children under 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, they are like other unvaccinated people: except at home, they should always wear masks indoors and in the bathroom. most public situations.

“We don’t know enough right now to complicate matters,” said Shannon Bennett, chief science officer at the California Academy of Sciences. “Children should always remain masked. We know masks work and we need to continue to be careful. “

As many activities resume, such as summer camps and organized youth sports, parents may find themselves forced to make decisions on the fly. Is it okay for children to remove their masks around their peers? What about situations where everyone is exposed and feels uncomfortable?

“The CDC has decided to give a lot of the responsibility to individuals and individual families,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert with UCSF. “It’s a lot of math that people have to do in their minds. If they choose to protect their children at all times, it should be safe. But the point of tension will be when they decide they don’t want their children to wear a mask.

Boren already expects his children to feel anxious about unmasked adults after a year of strict adherence to the pandemic mask rules.

“The reality is that the anxiety is perhaps all the more valid,” she said. “California still has more than half of its population not fully vaccinated. I will never know if the unmasked person standing next to my children could be a carrier of COVID. “

So Boren added, “My kids will continue to hide in most situations” and stay away from grocery stores and other places where the immunization status of adults is unknown.

Nearly 16 million Californians – 40% of the population – are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to state data. Relaxing pandemic control measures before everyone can get vaccinated is “a huge challenge” for families, Petru said.

Identifying who has had their vaccines is another issue.

“We don’t know that everyone who takes off their mask is vaccinated,” nor if people are telling the truth when they claim they are, she said.

Bennett said California is not close enough to a vaccination threshold to safely remove all restrictions or understand how the virus will behave when the state gets closer.

“There’s plenty of room by June 15 for things to happen,” she said. “Everyone is wondering what drives our continued success in reducing cases. When the masks are gone, we’ll all see if our immunization level will be enough to keep it going.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the White House’s senior medical adviser, said this week that children under 12 will have to wait until at least the end of 2021 for COVID-19 vaccines, as a scientific study determines between- time safety and efficiency.

The high and improving vaccination rates in most Bay Area counties should reassure families by then, especially in less crowded and outdoor situations.

“With a large number of people vaccinated, it becomes safer and safer for children,” Chin-Hong said. “We would have a different conversation if we were in Louisiana and Wisconsin. The amount of virus in the air is much higher in these places than in California today. “

But it will always be difficult to make those calls. Many sports and event organizations can check the immunization status of participants, but most retail establishments or even attractions like the California Academy of Sciences do not have this infrastructure, Bennett said.

Petru pleads for parents to continue wearing masks around their children even if they are vaccinated.

“It’s not a good message to send to kids that you don’t have to wear a mask, but they do,” she said. “It’s like telling them, ‘You’re still a problem. You must wear a mask. But that’s not the problem. It’s too complicated for children to understand.

Aidin Vaziri is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email:

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