Birthdays are usually joyous occasions for Bonnie Wiener-Bambara, with daylong parties that involve pampering, dinner and friends.
When she turned 47 on January 10, however, the festivities were practically nonexistent.
There was good reason for the change in plans: The college professor in Patchogue, New York, has a 13-month-old daughter. Because there’s no vaccine approved for babies that young, because cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 are rising precipitously across the United States, and because experts are once again recommending that people avoid gathering in groups, Wiener-Bambara didn’t want to take any chances.
“It didn’t feel much like a birthday,” she said. “Since Christmas, my daughter Lily hasn’t seen anyone except me and my husband, but her not getting sick is most important.”
Wiener-Bambara certainly isn’t the only grown-up ditching plans to keep babies and toddlers safe right now. Across the country, parents, grandparents and even teenagers who share households with children under age 5 find themselves making similar sacrifices.
Just like they have for nearly two years.
As we approach the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s still no vaccine approved to protect children under age 5. This demographic is just as vulnerable as they were when the pandemic started. This means their parents and loved ones are just as worried as ever. It also means the grownups in these kids’ lives are angry, stressed out and totally overwhelmed.
“So many parents were just starting to breathe a sigh of relief after having their older kids being eligible for vaccination,” said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a viral blizzard, with an extremely contagious variant, and it’s one of the most dangerous times for young kids in this pandemic.”
Keeping guard up
Wen doesn’t just think about the public health implications around Covid-19 and how it’s affecting the mental health of parents with young kids — she lives it every day.
Wen, a CNN Medical Analyst and author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health,” has two children: a 4-year-old who doesn’t turn 5 until August and a 21-month-old.
For these reasons, Wen said her family will continue taking precautions, such as wearing face coverings in public, avoiding indoor settings where they and others are unmasked, testing themselves and friends before intimate gatherings in private homes, and minimizing travel to cut back on risk.
“Despite the precautions we are taking, it is still quite possible that we could be exposing our kids to Omicron,” she said.
There’s certainly cause for concern. Early data indicates Omicron appears to cause less severe disease and lead to fewer hospitalizations, but its rapid spread indicates it is much more contagious than other variants. Case numbers have soared over the past few weeks to an average of over 754,000 new infections per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Omicron represented 95% of all U.S. Covid cases in the week ending January 1, according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The spike is potentially bad news for kids, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“The sheer volume of infections because of its profound transmissibility will mean that many more children will get infected,” Fauci said last week at a White House briefing.
For the week ending January 6, more than 580,000 child Covid-19 cases were reported nationwide, according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. This number is a 78% increase over the 325,000 added cases reported the week ending December 30, according to the report.
Help for children under 5 doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon. Pfizer has been working on a vaccine for kids ages 2 to 4, but company officials announced last month that two doses of a 3-microgram shot didn’t offer as much protection as they hoped. (By contrast, the grownup shots are 30 micrograms apiece.) The study has been updated to give all participants under age 5 a third dose, and data is expected around the end of March or beginning of April, a company scientist told US officials in mid-December.
This news has rankled parents of those children who would qualify for the under-5 vaccine. These parents say they’re tired and stressed. Since some of them have never stopped social distancing, they’re also going a little stir-crazy.
Take Maggie Christopher. The 35-year-old resident of Stow, Ohio, has two children — a 6-year-old boy who is fully vaccinated and a 3-year-old who is not. Her older son was exposed to Covid-19 on the day he got his second shot, and Christopher and her husband bent over backward to keep their children separate and make sure the boys didn’t cross paths for five days at home.
“We came up with an alternating shower schedule. We wore masks inside,” Christopher remembered. “After two years of anxiety about the unknown, to have to deal with that for five days was overwhelming.”
Thankfully, she said, neither of the boys tested positive.
Oregon resident Mary Anne Cooper wasn’t as lucky. After staving off Covid-19 for the better part of two years, she got the virus last week and immediately began isolating in her bedroom so as not to infect her 21-month-old son. Cooper described the symptoms like a “bad flu,” noting she had lost her voice as a result.
In an interview over a messaging app, Cooper said the whole experience of raising a young child through the pandemic has tested her patience as a parent and as a person.
“We are the lucky ones — we both had job stability and while my husband was never able to go remote, we both had enough work flexibility to make it through increased sick days, daycare closures, our first quarantine and everything that has come with the pandemic,” she said. “It’s also taken so much from us — we had our son in April 2020 and have only known parenting in the pandemic. Our families didn’t get to meet him right away, hiring help was risky, and sending our son to daycare carried its own risk.”
She added: “We are grateful we had the resources to manage this, but it’s still been challenging.”
In Coldwater, Ontario, Kaidy Mae Newman and her partner haven’t gotten out much since the pandemic started, largely because their 4-year-old son is unvaccinated, and they don’t want to take the risk.
Newman said there’s no question the boy’s social skills have suffered as a result.
“We were excited for our son to start school in September and be able to make some friends, but six weeks into the school year, his teacher told us that he had yet to communicate with any of his peers,” Newman recalled.
She added that by the Christmas break, things seemed to be getting better for the boy. He had two play dates at a park, and he welcomed a friend over for a masked playdate. Then came Omicron, and a return to distance learning. “He is right back to where we were in September now. He won’t say a word in his online class,” Newman said.
Reasons for hope
Despite the uncertainty, despite the sacrifices, despite the hardship, most parents of kids under age 5 agree there are reasons for hope.
For starters, young children are at “extremely low risk” for severe cases of Covid-19, according to Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine and associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital in California.
Less than 1.5% of all child Covid-19 cases in the United States resulted in hospitalization of any kind, according to state data in the recent American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association report.
Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease doctor, added that there are ways to minimize risk for children who are not yet eligible for vaccines: by surrounding children with vaccinated adults and by having them wear face coverings (preferably KN94 or KN95 masks) in public and group settings.
Christopher, the Ohio mother of two, said sometimes she allows herself to think about the future and daydream about normalcy for her younger son — if only for a moment or two.
“The light at the end of the tunnel definitely keeps getting a little bigger and a little brighter, but it’s not nearly as fast as we all hoped it would be,” she said. “Once he’s vaccinated, I hope we can find the right location for him to begin social interactions with other kids his age.”
Larkin O’Leary is equally optimistic.
O’Leary lives in Santa Rosa, California with her husband and two kids — a 7-year-old son with Down syndrome and a 2-year-old daughter. While her son was among the first children to be vaccinated, her daughter still has not received a shot.
Her son tested positive for Covid-19 this week, but everyone else in the family has tested negative.
O’Leary said that although she recognizes how unfair it has been for her kids to grow up during this time, she understands the precautions their family must take and has, for the most part, embraced them. She said she will jump at the chance to get her daughter vaccinated and admitted that she longs for the day when she and her family can see friends and relatives without fear of infection.
“Until then, we just have to be patient,” she said. “The only way to get past this is to go through it.”
Matt Villano is a writer and editor in Healdsburg, California.