Omicron is here, but kids under 12 haven’t yet had a chance to get fully immunised – and those under five are still ineligible for the vaccine. So how do we best keep our tamariki safe? Naomii Seah consults the experts for advice.
Many parents of young children are worried about omicron’s arrival. Although the paediatric vaccine for five to 11-year-olds was made available on January 17, our tamariki are still weeks away from being fully protected against Covid-19. Plus, children aged five and under are still ineligible for the vaccine. But for those concerned, here are a few practical, actionable tips, as well as some answers to common questions parents may have to better protect our next generation.
Where do I even begin?
Basically, treat children like adults. No, this doesn’t mean giving your five-year-old a martini at the end of a long day. Michael Baker, a public health physician from the University of Otago’s Pōneke campus, who sits on the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 technical advisory group, notes that protecting young children against Covid-19 is “very much the same for older children and adults”. This means following the updated CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance on preventing illness for both yourself and your little ones.
This means encouraging basic precautions such as physical distancing – the CDC recommends two metres – frequent hand-washing or sanitising, and coughing and sneezing into elbows.
Should children wear masks?
“Children down to the age of two years can wear a mask quite well,” says Baker, who describes masks as “one of the few ways you can actually give children an individual level of protection in indoor environments”.
Paediatric masks are available from a number of places. The CDC has a guide on choosing the right mask for you and your whānau, including tamariki, but notes that children under two shouldn’t wear a mask.
Dr Jin Russell, a paediatrician at Starship children’s hospital in Auckland, says that although masking can mitigate infection risk, “it’s important to balance the developmental needs of very young children with protection against Covid-19”. She acknowledges masking two-year-olds would be “tricky”, as care involves frequent feeding and naps.
Russell therefore prefers improved ventilation indoors with vaccinated adults and increased outdoor time as methods of managing infection risk for young children through the pandemic.
As for school-aged children, they “generally tolerate wearing masks well”, says Russell, noting that masking in schools is now recommended for students in year three and under, and mandatory from year four onwards.
How can I make sure my early childcare provider will be a safe environment?
Baker notes that the most high-risk situation for young children will likely be attending early childhood education (ECE) centres and just yesterday, the Ministry of Health confirmed a Tauranga ECE was linked to a suspected omicron case.
It’s a good idea, then, for parents to be familiar with their provider’s policies. Baker points out it’s not just the physical environment, such as the ventilation of ECE spaces, which informs risk levels – a centre’s attitude to infection prevention is equally important.
“You’re hoping [they’ll] very actively enforce the policy that people [with symptoms] are excluded… [and] you hope to have a policy on universal masking for children of all ages,” says Baker.
Russell notes that “improving ventilation in ECEs is a key layer of protection”.
Check whether your ECE is increasing outdoor learning activities. Russell recommends a switch to outdoor learning for ECEs both to reduce the spread of omicron and provide “other health benefits for children”. For ECEs with limited outdoor options, or poorly ventilated areas, Russell recommends portable HEPA air cleaners. On Tuesday, the government announced that 5,000 portable air cleaners had been ordered for schools, but it’s not clear if any are destined for ECEs.
Is it safe to take your children to the park?
Yes. Transmission risk in breezy outdoor areas is low, notes Russell.
What about playgrounds?
Outdoor ones, yes. As well as the low-risk nature of well-ventilated outside areas, transmission risk from surfaces is low. Plus, “It’s really important to let children get out and about in fresh air and run around,” says Russell. “It’s great for their physical and emotional wellbeing.” Russell recommends using hand sanitiser or washing and drying hands before and after playing on playgrounds.
Russell says she’s cautious about bringing children to crowded indoor environments. When case numbers rise, Russell recommends looking for outdoor alternatives, such as beaches and outdoor swimming pools.
What if I have to take my child to a supermarket or shopping centre?
Again, Russell notes that she’s personally cautious about bringing children into any crowded indoor public environment. However, she knows some families have limited options, meaning children often have to be taken with caregivers on shopping trips.
“Put them in a well-fitted mask if they will tolerate this,” says Russell. She emphasises that the mask should be as high quality as possible. Information on choosing the best mask for your child is available on the CDC website.
How do I keep playdates safe?
Again, Russell recommends keeping them outside. “If the children want to come inside, we open up all the doors and windows,” says Russell. When asking about vaccination status of a playdate’s family members, Russell recommends keeping the discussion away from children. “We don’t want children to feel stigmatised no matter what their vaccine status is.”
Baker adds that “clarity, honesty and kindness are good working principles”, and that parents should be vigilant of their children and “take rapid steps to isolate them if they have any Covid-19 symptoms”.
What if my child develops symptoms?
“Families should keep children home if they are at all unwell – if they show any symptoms whatsoever,” Russell recommends. And, of course, get them tested.
What if my child catches Covid-19?
Of course, this is a concern for many parents. Children who contract Covid-19 generally get cold-like symptoms, says Russell – “runny nose, cough, sore throat, headache, fever and gastrointestinal symptoms” – but many may be completely asymptomatic.
Statistically, less than 2% of children will need to be seen in a hospital. Additionally, Russell says vaccination of children is “very protective against serious illness or hospitalisation”, and even a single dose is protective right up until the due date of the second. So, when your child is eligible, adds Baker, it’s a “good starting point” to get that first shot.