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Kids and the Covid-19 delta variant: Top doctors answer what we need to know

While there’s no evidence the delta variant is targeting children any more than previous strains, pediatric hospitals and ICUs are seeing upticks, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.
Image: Florida school masks mandates
A mother walks her child to school on the first day of in-person classes in Orange County at Baldwin Park Elementary School on August 21, 2020 in Orlando, Fla.Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

Parents are at another inflection point now that the highly contagious delta variant is making its way through the United States.

As the mom of a 5 year old, I’m asking myself once again how I can keep my son and I safe while allowing him to function normally and have healthy social interactions — especially with the new school year right around the corner.

I recently chatted with some of the country’s top medical experts about the biggest lingering questions when it comes to kids and the delta variant.

Here’s what Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, alongside Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist and NBC News and MSNBC medical contributor, and Dr. Paul Offit, pediatrician, infectious disease expert, and member of the FDA Covid Vaccine Advisory Panel, told me.

What are we seeing in terms of the delta variant and pediatric hospital admissions? What concerns you most?

Dr. Hotez told me that while there’s no evidence the delta variant is targeting children any more than previous strains, pediatric hospitals and intensive care units are seeing upticks, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.

As for the death rates for children, “No question, they’re really low,” he said. “But it’s the more subtle and chronic morbidities that I worry about.” Children younger than 12 are not currently eligible for the vaccine.

Dr. Hotez said he was also concerned about kids who might experience “long Covid,” which is when symptoms drag out for six months or more rather than for a couple weeks. A recent study found that 26 percent of adults who get the disease get “long Covid.” Dr. Hotez noted, “We don’t know how far that extends down in terms of age.”

When will the vaccines be available for kids younger than 12?

The most bullish estimates are that we could be moving toward vaccinating kids within weeks, not months. In a CNN Town Hall on July 21, President Joe Biden said the vaccine would be available for children under 12 “soon,” suggesting that a vaccine might be eligible for emergency use authorization “by the end of August, beginning September, October.”

Shortly before that, Pfizer told NBC News in a statement that the company expects to have clinical trial results for children ages 5 to 11 by “sometime in September,” and that results for children between the ages of 2 to 4 were expected “soon after that.”

One more hopeful data point: The Covid-19 vaccines have all been given so far under an Emergency Use Authorization, which has given some people pause because they want the vaccine to get final signoff before they take it. NBC News has learned that the Pfizer vaccine is expected to be granted final FDA approval by Labor Day. Dr. Gupta said he expects that vaccines for 5 to 11year-olds to be a “fast follow.”

What’s the best way for us to protect our kids from the delta variant, especially those who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine?

Get vaccinated, said the doctors. If you haven’t gotten your shot yet, why not today? Vaccination rates in the U.S. for adults 18 and older have finally surpassed the 70 percent mark, largely because people in southern states (where residents are seeing a surge in cases) found reason to get the jab.

The more adults and older kiddos who get vaccinated, the more protected the entire community will be – including younger children.

Dr. Offit told me something we’ve heard many times by now. “Had we continued to give three million doses [of the vaccines] a day, which we did a few months ago, we would be at about 80 percent population immunity from vaccination, and we wouldn’t have to talk about any of this.”

Should I be masking indoors in group settings, even if I’m vaccinated?

Putting aside the political controversies over mask mandates (or bans therein), all three doctors I spoke with recommend wearing masks indoors in group settings, regardless of your vaccination status.

“Masks help not only with Covid, but with the flu, RSV, and other respiratory diseases,” said Dr. Hotez. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and other common respiratory illnesses are spiking across the country, months ahead of their usual winter surge, which concerns doctors across the country. And unlike Covid, RSV is known to regularly hit kids hard.

Dr. Gupta is planning to keep his young son masked in school at least through February, when the most severe risk of RSV typically passes.

Are at-home Covid tests worth buying?

Yes, say the docs. Some companies offer at-home rapid Covid tests, for as little as about $10 each, that deliver results in less than a half hour. CVS, Walgreens, and Amazon, among others, offer the kits, which are also rounded up here by The TODAY Show.

I bought a six-pack of BinaxNow tests several months ago when they were more expensive, at about $30 a piece. I can’t express the peace of mind it’s brought me to test myself or my son (without leaving the house) any time I’ve had a concern.

"Morning Joe" booking producer Cat Rakowski and her 5-year-old son Lincoln.
"Morning Joe" booking producer Cat Rakowski and her 5-year-old son Lincoln.Courtesy of Cat Rakowski.

How can I keep myself (and my children) calm?

Take a deep breath and remember that if you’re fully vaccinated, masking indoors and planning to vaccinate your children as soon as they’re eligible, you’ve done what comports with the latest science.

Experts said to stay informed, understand that incoming data, variants, and vaccine rates may all change the guidance again (and again), and that’s OK. Make the best decisions you can today. If you have a pediatrician you trust, consult with them.

If you don’t have health insurance that realistically supports a personal relationship with a doctor, identify a few trustworthy public health officials and follow their counsel.

In an earlier piece I wrote on mask guidance, Dr. Gupta compared Covid-19 to chickenpox, because it was a disease he expected most parents would understand from personal experience.

I got chickenpox when I was a kid in the late ‘80s, so I was surprised to receive reader feedback that chickenpox wasn’t something everyone knew about. I wondered why for a minute before slapping my palm on my forehead. The chickenpox vaccine hit the market in 1995, and today it’s required in 43 states for entry into public school. And guess what? That one works great, too.

Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and “Way Too Early." She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.