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Are play dates safe? What about flights? A guide for parents of unvaccinated kids

As parents struggle to determine what summer activities are safe for their unvaccinated kids, USA TODAY called on health experts to rate 10 events.

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Tawny Ochoa is eager to make up for last year's lost summer with her family. 

The high school teacher from Whittier, California, became fully vaccinated in mid-March and immediately began concocting plans for her 10- and 7-year-old sons, Holden and Huckleberry Ochoa-Flechtner. 

But she's still unsure of what's safe for her family to do. Her sons, because of their ages, are unvaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has eased pandemic restrictions for fully vaccinated people. But as cases rose in Los Angeles County, the local health department reinstated indoor mask recommendations on June 28 – regardless of vaccination status – leaving Ochoa to reevaluate the summer with her sons. 

“The messaging is inconsistent, and everybody is terrified of the delta variant right now, and they’re anticipating that kids will be affected by it,” she said. “I don’t know how to feel.” 

Kids under 12 know about COVID vaccine even though they can't get it
Kids under the age of 12 who can't be vaccinated might know more than you think about COVID-19 and the vaccine.
Alia Wong, USA TODAY

As parents like Ochoa struggle to determine what's safe for their unvaccinated children, USA TODAY called on five health experts to rate 10 events by risk. We're sharing the median of their ratings below.

A scenario with a score of “0” has virtually no risk at all and vaccinated parents should feel comfortable bringing their kids into that setting. A scenario with a score of “10” is “highly risky” and probably a setting families should avoid.  

Meet our expert panelists

Elizabeth Stuart, professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Dr. Sarita Shah, associate professor at the Department of Global Health, Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases at Emory University

Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Dr. Bernhard Wiedermann, infectious disease specialist at Children’s National Hospital

Dr. Stan Spinner, chief medical officer at Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care

How safe is your child? 10 scenarios

Spinner: “We know that the virus scatters much more rapidly outdoors, therefore the risk of exposure to the virus is less while outdoors versus indoors.”

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Data from reopened schools in the 2020-21 year suggested kids weren’t superspreaders of the original coronavirus. More infections tracked in schools were passed between adults and teens. Gordon says the risk of transmission in schools may increase if students in middle and high school attend classes in the same building. 

Shah: "This gets tricky and depends on whether unvaccinated adults will be getting tested."

Stuart: "This might also depend somewhat on the sport. Tennis would be less risky than wrestling, given the ability to stay distanced."

Gordon says the risk of transmission may increase if the child takes off their mask to eat or drink during the flight. 

What about hotels: Do I need to take extra precautions?

Stuart: "In general, outdoors has low risk of transmission, and people should feel pretty comfortable not wearing a mask outside."

Wiedermann: "If it were my child, I’d keep them a bit distanced when the birthday honoree is blowing out the candles!"

Stuart: "This scenario is one where I would think about the essential nature of the trip. If my kids could stay home, I would rather go inside and do the shopping without them."

Wiedermann: "I’m more concerned about the immunocompromised parent. (They) should be wearing a mask at all events with contact with others. Although the parent’s risk depends in part on the nature of the immunocompromising circumstances, I would advise that parent not to go to this play date unless the other adult is masked."

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Wiedermann: "In general movie theaters may be less risky than indoor activities where people are facing each other ... (but) I’ll put up with streaming on my small home screen for a bit longer."

Wiedermann: “This is just a bad idea; it’s unfortunate family members won’t agree to vaccinate and mask. I love my family, but you wouldn’t catch me doing this; maybe next year.”

Two keys to keeping your unvaccinated children safe

Overall, the experts agreed outdoor events and activities are safer than indoors. They also noted risk may change depending on vaccination rates and community transmission in a given city.

Stuart advises parents to monitor rates and transmission through their local health department's website. Vaccination rates that range from 70% to 80% mean the community is in good shape, she said. 

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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