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How to Safely Travel With Young Kids During the Delta Variant Surge

Wellness Family Travel
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Aug 18, 2021

It seems that the nasty, insistent virus that causes COVID-19 has found a loophole. As adults are increasingly vaccinated, it’s preying on the largest unvaccinated population: kids under twelve.

CDC records show that the only age groups that experienced increased hospitalization rates in early August were children aged one to four and five to 17. Parents are so desperate to get their kids under-12 vaccinated that thousands are on waitlists for clinical trials.

Where does that leave you, the vaccinated parent, hoping for some measure of normality and, quite possibly, a family trip together during the last warm days of summer?

The good news is that you don’t need to panic and, with precautions, your kids can still have a life closer to normal than they had a year ago.

Consider activities before and after you travel

“The mental health consequences of COVID are so high on kids, you have to take a harm reduction approach,” says Dr. Shannon Thyne, a pediatrician who works in public health in Los Angeles County.

While Thyne is referring to the need to let kids socialize and return to their normal life of school, sports, and friends, she also recognizes that some families may feel the need to travel, and she suggests ways to do this safely. One thing is to make sure that kids are healthy before they even set out.

“The things I would tell people to do with kids that are unvaccinated vis a vis travel is make sure that the environment they’re in before travel is as safe as possible and after travel is as safe as possible,” Thyne says.

Many people are so concerned about getting the virus during transit that they forget they could potentially contract it before setting off and then infect other people on the plane and deal with the consequences of being sick in a destination away from home.

Likewise, if a child did pick up an asymptomatic case of COVID while traveling, you wouldn’t want that kid to unwittingly pass it onto someone else — which is why you want to be thoughtful about how quickly your child engages in post-trip activities.

Research the destination

Even if you drive to a destination, you should research the COVID situation there, as well as the attitudes about mask-wearing. Some parts of the US don’t seem to have gotten the memo about the Delta variant. So, beyond dealing with the likely higher COVID caseload, you may find yourself having to constantly explain why you and the kids are wearing masks. That may be a more emotional hassle than you want to take on.

As to air travel, Thyne believes parents should reconsider getting on a plane with children who are under 12. If you do opt to fly, she says you should “consider going somewhere that requires testing” prior to travel — so you can feel reassured that people on the plane are less likely to be infected.

Hawaii is one such option. While the state no longer requires pre-testing for travelers vaccinated within the US, all unvaccinated kids aged five to 11 must still receive a negative PCR test result before flying. Another option is Canada, which US citizens can now fly to only if those eligible have been vaccinated and they have completed a PCR test. That could give you even more reassurance that the vast majority of passengers on the plane are COVID-free.

Favor an outdoor vacation

Thyne says one piece of good news is that you don’t have to throw the gloves back on just to go to the grocery store.

“One of the things we are learning is that it’s less commonly transmitted through surfaces, and so we’re focusing on the fact that the major transmission is respiratory,” says Thyne. “I think we’ve made life a little bit less like hazmat-suity.”

But the virus is airborne, so Thyne says she’s telling everyone, vaccinated or not, to avoid going to indoor places with other people where they’ll be taking their masks off. On the other hand, she recognizes that for some kids, like her own athletic boys, sports are critical.

“Would I send my kid to outdoor sports activities? Yes, that’s a risk I would take,” Thyne says. “I do believe that there is some risk outdoors, but I think it’s low enough. It’s more about indoor restaurants, indoor gyms, indoor whatever.”

Get the right masks for kids

While Thyne still believes in handwashing, she says parents’ primary attention should be on a properly fitting mask. She doesn’t recommend cloth masks, nor does she think N95s are the best solution for kids either — since children often don’t always wear them well.

Instead, Thyne recommends a three-ply surgical mask in a smaller, children’s size. One such brand is Well Before, which carries the three-ply model for kids with adjustable ear loops.

If you’re traveling, be sure that the mask is on as often as possible. Consider feeding the kids before arriving at the airport so they don’t have to eat in a crowded dining area.

Pod up and drive somewhere awesome

Since outdoors is still unequivocally the best place to spend your time and it’s healthy for kids to spend time outside, take a page out of the 2020 playbook this upcoming Labor Day weekend and go for a fun camping trip.

“If somebody was going to go away for Labor Day, I’d tell them to do it with their family or one other family that they’ve podded with.” Thyne says. “I would tell them to consider something they can drive to and where they can sleep independently from other families.”

You and your pod family could also rent an Airbnb together in the mountains or by a beautiful lake. But keep the groups small. Now is not the time for a huge gathering. “Throwing five families of kids into a bunk room is always a recipe for disaster,” Thyne says.

Use common sense

“I think anything that you could say about the zero to 12s, is only going to come from a place of common sense,” says Thyne, because there’s no actual data on how the Delta variant might affect them.

As many physicians have pointed out, no data as yet indicates that the Delta variant is necessarily more dangerous for kids. What is known is that it’s much more highly transmissible than previous variants, that COVID-related rules across the country have relaxed just as Delta arrived, and that, in many places, kids represent the largest unvaccinated group — explaining why more of them are contracting the disease.

So even if the Delta variant doesn’t make your kid ill, a potentially asymptomatic child could unwittingly bring harm to someone else down the line — or simply cause another family the hardship of quarantine. Back at school, one asymptomatic kid could sicken a classmate whose parent then needs to stay home from school and miss work.

All of this doesn’t mean trying to figure out a way to get your 10- or 11-year-old a vaccine. While Thyne is anxious for the FDA to approve the vaccine for young kids, as is the American Pediatric Association, she does not recommend people seek “vaccines outside the norm.”

But it does mean being thoughtful about your post-travel activities. If you have access to testing after your trip and you can afford it, go ahead and do it.

“I think you kind of have to take it to the level of personal responsibility,” Thyne says. She understands that travel may feel important for some families, but she wants them to recognize that travel is a luxury and take it from there.

“Just recognize your privilege, and figure out how to be responsible,” Thyne says.

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