BALTIMORE – Many Americans are heading into a summer where adults in the family may be vaccinated against COVID-19, while the youngsters aren't yet eligible – leaving parents and guardians wondering what activities are safe with their kids.
Experts say families still need to follow precautions, but that there are many activities that can be enjoyed with low risk. With spring in full swing, many families are eager to get out and have fun, though resuming activities or traveling still can cause nervousness.
Most children who get COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms, but some can get very sick and cases are rising among youths. Kids with the virus also can pass it on to others even if asymptomatic.
At Federal Hill Park on a recent day, Emily Coronell watched her 2-year-old daughter, Treasure Lee, play on the historically themed playground.
It was one of the handful of times during the pandemic that the 20-year-old took Treasure out to play. Other times, Coronell said, they'd be driving by and Treasure would say "playground" and cry. Coronell, who lives in West Baltimore, had to explain that she didn't think it was safe yet, that there was still a bad virus out there that could make them sick.
Coronell said she would feel more comfortable if parks weren't packed and if everyone observed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance to avoid crowds, practice physical distancing and wear face masks.
But, Coronell said, "it's not happening."
Older teens already can be vaccinated, and opportunities for those under 16 to get inoculated are expected to grow in the coming months.
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, currently approved for those ages 16 and up, for kids aged 12 to 15. And the company said this week that it will apply in September for emergency use of the vaccine in children as young as 2. Moderna has begun clinical trials of its vaccine in children and expects results early next year. Johnson & Johnson has expanded clinical trials of its vaccine to include adolescents.
For now, children make up a growing share of COVID-19 cases in Maryland and elsewhere.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Maryland's deputy health secretary for public health services, said the increase could be attributable to the spread of more contagious variants of the virus, namely the mutation first detected in the United Kingdom, which has become the predominant form of the virus in the state. She also pointed out that the youngest residents have not been vaccinated while older populations are.
In general, Chan said, the rise in cases among children hasn't been linked to any activities in particular, though she noted contact tracing data shows youth sports and other school-related activities have been associated with outbreaks. Chan said the department is concerned about the rise in youth cases but optimistic that case rates are beginning to decline, and she reiterated that masking is crucial in settings where children are present.
'Be outdoors as much as possible'
Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner, encourages parents to get outside, picking activities like outdoor get-togethers, walks and trips to parks and the beach.
"Outdoors is very protective, so be outdoors as much as possible," Wen said.
Wen, who has two young children, said her family has been hosting people in the backyard, which "been great socialization for us, for our children."
Depending on parents' comfort level, Wen considers it OK for children to play outside without masks if there are only a few kids around.
But parents should not throw caution to the wind, she said, adding: "Use the same precautions you would in social settings as you would in school."
That includes masks indoors when not in the home. And hand hygiene remains important, added Wen, who said she regularly applies hand sanitizer to her toddler when they go to the playground.
She urged adults to get vaccinated, as "having everyone else in the family be vaccinated helps the children."
Children's rates of infections are "really driven by what rates are in the community," said Dr. Amber D'Souza, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
There is hope that overall coronavirus rates will be low by the end of summer, she said.
A recent CDC study said the nation could see sharp declines by July presuming high vaccination coverage and if people continue to follow precautions such as masking.
But parents still need to take precautions as summer arrives, D'Souza said. Anyone who is not vaccinated remains susceptible to the virus, she said.
"Think about the way that you're traveling and the locations that you're choosing," she said. "Picking non-congested locations to have fun is going to keep risk lower."
Local schools, which have been bringing some kids back for in-person learning, say they're taking precautions during recess.
In Baltimore, this includes washing hands before going outside and when returning to the classroom, city schools spokeswoman Gwendolyn Chambers said. Students and staff also should practice social distancing of 6 feet when outside, though they may take a mask break while outdoors if they maintain that distance.
Baltimore County schoolchildren also wear masks and continue social distancing outdoors, county schools spokesman Charles Herndon said, though when it comes to recess, "it may be tough by definition to keep a hard and fast requirement for social distancing."
"So the result is that we want students separated as much as possible as they run around and are making every effort to do so," Herndon said in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
'We have to be safe. ... But it's weird'
For parents of young kids, it can be hard to explain certain situations in the pandemic.
When Jon Carroll, 41, and his son Desmond, 4, encounter strangers at the playground, on this day Druid Hill Park, "we mask up," Carroll said. And if it gets crowded, they leave.
Explaining that is the hard part, Carroll said. Desmond knows the word "dangerous," but Carroll doesn't want his son to associate that word with other people.
"I just tell him, 'When there's a lot of people, we have to be safe,'" Carroll said. "But it's weird."
Jackie McHale, 45, said preschool reopened for her son Quin, 4, in February and they began returning to the playgrounds this spring after a "monotonous" year at home.
News of reopening and more people getting vaccinated has made McHale feel more comfortable about going out in public with Quin.
"As long as it's not super crowded and the kids are wearing their masks, we feel pretty safe," McHale said as Quin scootered around Federal Hill Park on Tuesday afternoon.
Quin resisted wearing a mask at first, she said, and it was hard to explain why he couldn't play with other children.
"It was such a burden – for us and for him," McHale said. "As a parent, it just breaks your heart."
Now, Quin gravitates toward his peers whenever they go outside because he missed being around them, McHale said. Quin wears a mask whenever his mom tells him to, usually when there are other kids around, and McHale has signed him up for summer camps, she said.
A friend texted McHale the other day.
"I'm nervous, are you guys doing camps this year?" McHale recalled her friend saying.
She said she's OK with camp so long as they follow CDC guidelines and conduct most of the activities outdoors.
"It's like a breath of fresh air," she said.