CDC eases international travel restrictions + everything parents need to know this summer

We've compiled a guide for summer travel + everything else vaccinated parents need to know for getting through the summer with kids who can't get vaccinated yet.

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Updated June 10, 2021

As millions of Americans are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and embark on excitedly making summer plans, many parents are left wondering, "What about our kids?" COVID restrictions are being altered and lifted on a weekly basis, but with children unable to receive the vaccine, many parents are scratching their heads about what's safe and what's not until kids are vaccinated.

The FDA recently authorized Pfizer's vaccine for emergency use for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15, and anyone over the age of 16 can currently receive the Pfizer vaccine.

But if you have young children who may be several months away from meeting vaccine eligibility requirements, you're likely playing it safe this summer—not unlike last summer. The CDC has issued guidance stating that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks unless an establishment requires it.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children make up only about 13.4 percent of patients and 0.19 percent of all COVID-19 deaths. Studies have also shown that the risk to kids age 5 to 17 is far less than those older, and babies have an even smaller risk.

Much like last summer, risk mitigation will be the name of the game for parents when deciding what to do. Especially when it comes to vacation and travel plans.

Have travel restrictions changed?

Many people around the world are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the spread is becoming more controlled. This week, the CDC updated its international travel guidelines to offer more specific advice for vaccinated and unvaccinated travelers. If you've been wanting to plan a family trip overseas, there are a variety of dream destinations that are finally safe for your family to visit (as long as you take the recommended precautions in regard to unvaccinated children).

The new update separates 33 countries into various risk levels—1, 2, 3, and 4. The CDC's Travel Health Notice differentiates between countries with severe outbreaks vs. those where COVID-19 spread is more controlled. The guidance was based on data that shows whether cases in each country have decreased, increased, or remained stable over 28 days as determining criteria for each level. Level 1 and 2 are low-risk levels for individual and family travel—

The CDC recommends avoiding travel to countries at level 4, the highest threat level, which have more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents in the last 28 days. Level 4 countries include Brazil, India and Iraq. Level 3 countries include Mexico, Russia and Iran—and the CDC recommends not traveling to level 3 countries unless it's essential. These countries are currently reporting 100 to 500 cases per 100,000 residents.

For a full list of countries and COVID-19 travel criteria, you can read the full Travel Health Notice here.

Do kids still have to wear masks in school?

The CDC has released a new update to their school and childcare operational strategy, where they address concerns about mask-wearing and social distancing in schools in light of the newly adjusted mask guidelines.

For the remainder of the school year, the CDC recommends that schools and childcare centers continue to adhere to proven COVID-19 prevention methods—this includes mask-wearing and physical distancing.

The agency pointed out that because children under the age of 12 aren't yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and that children between the ages of 12 and 15 just became eligible on May 12—this isn't enough time for adequate immunization before the end of the school year. So yes, kids should still be masking up for at least the remainder of this school year.

"Systems and policy adjustments may be required for schools to change mask requirements for students and staff while continuing to ensure the safety of unvaccinated populations," they noted, adding that they'll "update guidance for schools in the coming weeks" that will likely impact COVID-19 safety protocol for the 2021-22 school year.

How will we know who's vaccinated and who's not?

Well, unfortunately, we won't know. Even Dr. Fauci says we'll have to rely on an honors system of sorts, and hope that those who choose to remain unvaccinated will still comply with wearing a mask. As with most of the guidelines released during this pandemic, parents are left to mitigate their own risks with little to no federal direction.

Some states are even lifting mask mandates for schools, despite the fact that children under the age of 12 cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine yet. It's more than a little anxiety-inducing because even if children haven't suffered the same degree of severe illness as adults have from the virus, they're still spreaders. They're still getting it. And we don't yet have reliable data on if or how long-haul COVID will affect them.

Bottom line: if you still want to wear your mask in solidarity with your kids, go for it. No one should judge anyone who's taking precautions against a global pandemic. Unvaccinated adults have the choice to remain unprotected; children do not have that choice, especially babies under two who can't wear a mask. There's no harm in still wearing your mask.

Who can my kids hang out with?

According to public health experts, we still need to trust the science behind virus precautions. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and contributor to the TODAY show on NBC, offers a few tips on how to (carefully) live life this summer.

"The top concern I hear from parents these days is how can we live and still keep their kids safe," Borba told NBC News. "So I tell them, anytime you go on a trip, you take the safe route. Anytime you go to a store, you make sure it's not crowded. You want to go see grandma? Make sure she's vaccinated first."

Though we are seeing hospitalizations and new case numbers decline compared to early 2021, we're still in a pandemic. Unfortunately, there is no risk-free activity or gathering. On the bright side, however, data shows that vaccinated adults are extremely well-protected from contracting and transmitting the virus, and children younger than 12 are less likely to become seriously ill or transmit the virus if infected.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows for a small group of fully vaccinated people to gather, and says those groups can include unvaccinated individuals from one other household—as long as none of the unvaccinated individuals are at serious risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Remember, though, the unvaccinated people can only come from a single household if the gathering includes fully vaccinated people from multiple households.

Maskless indoor gatherings with people outside of their household are still a no-go for unvaccinated kids, however. There is still a risk unvaccinated kids can transmit COVID-19 to one another and others.

The mental health of your children matters, too. Malia Jones, a community health scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told The New York Times it's important to find safe ways to combat the loneliness, anxiety and depression children are feeling.

"You can definitely have a play date with other families," Dr. Jones said. "You just need to keep taking the same precautions." Hold gatherings outside when you can, encourage physical distancing and, ideally, wear masks. "We're not at a point yet where we can have indoor play dates with no masks on among unvaccinated kids," she said.

What about summer travel plans?

We're rapidly approaching summer break and school-free days. Many families are planning to travel this summer for a much-needed family vacation. Can vaccinated adults travel without their children? The CDC says it's safe to do so in America. Vaccinated adults don't need to be tested for COVID-19 first, and they also don't have to self-isolate when they return.

Traveling with unvaccinated kids, however, is a bit different. You'll just need to take precautions and follow guidelines for each state you're traveling to. And you can always consult with your child's pediatrician before you go to see if it might be best for them to take a COVID-19 test prior to the trip and also upon returning home.

If traveling by air, make sure your children who are over the age of two wear a mask and follow all safety protocols while onboard and inside the airport. Many experts believe traveling by car is safer as you'll come into contact with fewer people, and outdoor activities like hiking and camping come with a much lower risk than most other summer activities. If you're heading to the beach, be mindful of keeping distance between others.

"If you're more than 6-feet from somebody outdoors, I don't think your mask is going to make that much of a marginal difference at that point, because the risk is already so low," Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told The Seattle Times.

The beach also has more of an opportunity to spread out and distance yourself from groups of people not from your household compared to a public pool.

Can we dine inside restaurants this summer?

If you're fully vaccinated, you sure can! The CDC has said fully vaccinated people can resume activities like eating indoors at restaurants, and the risk of bringing the virus home is unlikely. However, taking your kids along to eat indoors is still not as safe as eating outside on a restaurant's deck or patio.

You can't eat with a mask on, and with many restaurant restrictions being eased or lifted altogether, it's difficult to socially distance while inside. Restaurants have historically been one of the highest-risk settings for virus spread within communities. Eating outdoors is much safer, according to Dr. Jones.

When will kids be eligible to receive the vaccine?

As we mentioned earlier, children as young as 12 can now receive the Pfizer vaccine. But what about younger children?

During a quarterly earnings call, Pfizer officials say they expect to apply to the Food and Drug Administration this fall for emergency authorization to administer their COVID vaccine to children between the ages of two and 11. While these developments won't occur before the end of the summer, it gives parents a lot to look forward to ahead of the 2021-22 school year.

Here's a helpful chart on the latest CDC guidance, courtesy of Akron Children's Hospital:

When it comes to planning out your summer, it's OK to be excited for yourself and other adults in your family that are fully vaccinated while feeling anxious or disappointed that your children aren't. Making decisions and weighing risks during a global pandemic is extremely difficult and stressful.

Just remember–the fact that we're even discussing the issue of unvaccinated kids vs. vaccinated parents means we've made so much progress since last summer. Enjoy your time with your family, stay cautious, follow safety precautions, and do what feels right to you.

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