What is the risk of Omicron for families and children? Our expert intervenes
To begin with, what is the risk of Omicron for a person vaccinated and boosted? Can vaccinated children return to school safely? Is it safe to keep going to restaurants and concerts? And what’s the best way to protect children under 5 who are too young to be vaccinated?
As a guide, I spoke to our expert, Dr. Leana Wen, CNN medical analyst, who is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health” and the mother of two young children.
Dr Leana Wen: Everyone wants to know what the risk of this new variant is for us and our families. Overall, there is reassuring news: Research strongly indicates that Omicron causes a milder infection than the previously dominant Delta variant.
In addition, those vaccinated and boosted are well protected against serious illness, and the vaccination and booster also reduce the risk of mild illness.
This means that the risk to the vaccinated and stimulated person is low. A generally healthy person who has been vaccinated is unlikely to end up in the hospital if they contract Omicron. Those who aren’t vaccinated remain at high risk for serious illness, and one of the issues we’re seeing is that hospitals fill up due to the number of people unvaccinated and then infected with Covid-19.
Overwhelmed hospitals impact care for everyone because if hospitals are at full capacity or overcapacity, people can end up with long delays in getting the care they need. This not only affects people with Covid-19, but patients with appendicitis, chest pain and victims of car accidents could end up waiting many hours for treatment.
CNN: Can immunized children return to school safely? Are there specific things that can help reduce risk?
Everyone should wear at least one three-ply surgical mask – a fabric mask on top can help with the fit. An N95 or KN95 mask is even better protection.
If you are particularly worried about your children – for example, if they have an underlying health problem – you should contact the school and see if they can make any additional accommodations, especially at meal times. Unmasked children eating together, in the immediate vicinity, is a setting that could lead to transmission of Covid-19. Perhaps the school is already taking precautions, such as having children eat outside or in well-ventilated areas, seated apart. Otherwise, ask if your child can eat in an area away from others, perhaps in an unused classroom.
CNN: And unvaccinated children, can they go back to school?
Magnifying glass: First, I strongly recommend that all children aged 5 and over get the vaccine. Vaccination is more important than ever, with so many viruses circulating.
Unvaccinated children are at greater risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19, as well as of becoming seriously ill. However, other protective measures can still help your unvaccinated child go to school. Wearing a high quality mask protects your child. Of course, it is best if the other children around your child are all wearing masks. Even if they aren’t, masking still protects your child.
Magnifying glass: If your teenager is eligible, yes absolutely I would recommend the booster. The first two doses protect well against serious illnesses, but the effectiveness of Omicron against mild illnesses is reduced. The booster dose restores this protection. The booster is especially important if your teenager has underlying medical conditions like asthma or obesity that predispose them to more serious illness.
CNN: Is it safe for people who have been vaccinated and boosted to go to a concert, sporting event, or restaurant?
Magnifying glass: This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on what you mean by “safe”. In most American communities, the level of Covid-19 is extremely high. Going to one of these places means that you will be exposed to the coronavirus, as there is a good chance that someone around you is a carrier of the coronavirus.
That said, you can significantly reduce your risk. The outdoors remains safer than indoors, and outdoor concerts and sporting events will be much less risky than if they were indoors. Indoors, making sure you wear a high quality mask and keep it on at all times will also make the activity much safer.
The same goes for meals, although obviously you won’t have your mask to eat, and neither will others. Outdoor restaurants are much safer than indoor restaurants. Indoor restaurants and bars are high risk environments, although ventilation and spacing can reduce the risk somewhat. Whether you go there depends on how you feel about getting a breakthrough infection. Some people will want to resume their pre-pandemic activities and would not be too bothered if they developed symptoms. Others fear the risk of long-term symptoms and Omicron unknowns and would likely want to avoid dining out as cases of Covid-19 escalate.
CNN: And children under 5, what’s the best way to protect them?
Magnifying glass: I have two children under the age of 5 and they are not yet eligible for vaccination. The best way to protect them is to surround them with other fully immunized people. Adults caring for children, including parents, grandparents, teachers and babysitters, should be immunized and vaccinated. Older siblings who can be vaccinated should get the vaccine.
Beyond that, we can also make sure that children over 2 years old are masked inside and try to reduce indoor gatherings with others. Now is not the time for birthday parties and indoor games. And I also hope that the FDA expedites the review and clearance of vaccines in this younger age group, as these young children are particularly vulnerable right now, given the high level of viruses all around us.
CNN: Should I try to catch Covid-19 since I’ve heard that Omicron isn’t that bad?
Magnifying glass: I hear this question asked a lot, including from people who have been very careful throughout the pandemic. I understand where this question comes from. It is true that those who are vaccinated and boosted are unlikely to get very sick, especially if they are generally in good health. And getting Omicron, in addition to the vaccination, likely confers an extra level of immunity.
However, there are still consequences to this infection. Some people – especially the unvaccinated, but also a small proportion of the vaccinated – could get very sick. Some could have long-term consequences. No one wants to inadvertently spread disease to those around us, including vulnerable elderly people or children too young to be vaccinated. And there is no evidence that outsourcing Omicron would be better than boosters to protect against future variants.
The bottom line is that we should do our best to avoid getting Omicron. Take simple steps that protect yourself and reduce the risk of infecting others, such as wearing a mask in indoor public spaces. For most people, it’s a small price to pay to avoid getting sick.