The omicron variant is here. This is what doctors say we should do to prepare our kids.
All signs point to a new surge of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. The omicron variant has spiked cases around the world, and we’re just starting to see cases in the United States tick not-so-gradually up as we head into the busiest weeks of the holidays.
While millions of kids have been vaccinated, we still don’t have herd immunity, and parents have tons of questions about omicron, boosters, school, socializing, and keeping everyone as safe as possible. Basically, we all just want the best information possible from a reliable source.
To get a handle on what we need to do, we spoke with Dr. Jason Terk, a practicing pediatrician and the national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
What’s the single best thing we can do to keep our kids safe right now?
Dr. Terk was extremely clear on this point: If your kid is eligible, the singular action that will keep them the safest right now is to be vaccinated for COVID-19. The omicron variant seems to be more easily transmissible than other strains, so it’s more important than ever to try and stop the spread and to decrease its severity.
And remember that getting immunity takes some time.
“Now is the time to begin the vaccination process because it’s going to take five weeks to be fully protected,” he explained.
And in addition to the COVID-19 jab, be sure to get everyone in your family, including your kids of all ages, a flu vaccine for extra protection and for the public good.
“You also have to make sure to get your influenza vaccination,” he explains, which will keep your kids healthy, safe, and out of the crowded hospitals this winter.
If there’s a surge, should we consider pulling our kids from school?
“We at the AAP strongly encourage people to continue to go to school,” Dr. Terk says about healthy kids, though he noted that school attendance should include basic virus safety measures. “All children attending school should wear their masks and maintain as much distancing that is practical.”
Why keep going to school even if numbers are up? Because the damage done from isolation and learning from home can be serious for kids — and keeping up learning and socialization is extremely important.
But we don’t know the future, and there may come a time when a variant or new circumstance could cause school closures. In this case, he recommends following local guidelines.
“As far as school attendance, it’s going to depend on local disease activity, and [local authorities] will provide guidance,” he said.
What should we know about omicron and our kids?
“Omicron is apparently significantly more transmissible,” he says, “but initial indications may be that it’s less virulent. We don’t have enough time or experience to know that with a high level of certainty.”
With all that in mind, following current recommendations and continuing to keep safe practices in mind is the best step to take while we wait and see.
“Outdoor activities are safer,” he says. “Indoor activities are generally regarded as safe with vaccinated individuals. If you don’t know vaccine status, or if there are unvaccinated people present, maintain distance and maintaining mask wearing when possible.”
A reminder: Roughly 76% of Americans age 16 and over have been fully vaccinated. Dr. Fauci recommends all eligible adults (and 16 and 17 year olds, too) get a booster to be better protected against omicron. Roughly 55 million eligible Americans have received a booster. It’s unclear if and when children will need boosters.
And keep an eye on your trusted resources to stay on top of new information in the coming weeks. Recommendations may change — that doesn’t reflect confusion or flip-flopping, it reflects a changing body of research and information.
“Redoubling our efforts to stay safe is important. This is a dynamic situation and as the reality on the ground changes, we need to change how we behave.”
What about booster shots for kids 11-16?
Right now, it’s not recommended, and kids in that age bracket are considered fully vaccinated.
“Currently, third vaccinations with Pfizer is recommended for kids 16-18 and everyone above,” he explains. “That’s a new recommendation. The younger population [ages 5-16] who are vaccinated are considered to be fully vaccinated with the two shots. We continue to recommend that kids 5 and up get their vaccines.”
That’s an important distinction for parents of younger kids, as that age group only started getting vaccinated in November.
What’s the single most important thing for parents to understand right now?
“What I’m telling the parents in my practice right now is that people are often times afraid of making the wrong decision for their kid — like they’re afraid that getting a vaccination would cause problems down the road,” Dr. Terk says. “I want them to know that our recommendation to get eligible kids vaccinated is based on our experience with other respiratory vaccines, and the very real danger that is present right now is what we need to protect them from.”
He explains that the risks of a kid getting COVID-19 far outweigh the risks of very rare vaccine side effects or theoretical issues down the road.
“The vaccine works so well,” he says. “During delta, we saw so many kids get seriously ill. It may be the case that omicron isn’t as severe, but it probably won’t be the last variant.”
The bottom line?
“Get your child vaccinated and listen to the counsel of your child’s pediatrician.”
Where can we get the best information about omicron and COVID-19?
“Everybody wants as much information as possible, and the desire to get the information exceeds the information available,” Dr. Terk says. “What fills the gap is conjecture.”
His best suggestions are to visit the CDC website for the most accurate and up-to-date general information. For information about your kids and coronavirus specifically, healthychildren.org is run by the AAP and has a ton of good guidance about everything related to kids’ health.
If you need local guidance, seek out your county or local health department website.
For questions that are more specific or that might specifically reflect your individual kid or family circumstances, your pediatrician is the person to call.