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More than 2 million Americans are getting vaccinated per day. Grandparents are getting shots. Kids are returning to school. And the weather is getting warmer. It feels like we just might be in the home stretch of the terrible COVID pandemic. Can our kids hug their grandparents? What does the data tell us about the dangers of kids in schools? And how nervous should we be about grown-ups being vaccinated but kids going without shots? Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown and author of the indispensable ParentData newsletter, joined Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, to discuss. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Dan Kois: Last week, the CDC released new guidelines for vaccinated people. So what does that guidance mean for families where, for example, Grandma and Grandpa have gotten the shot, but Mom and Dad and kids have not gotten the shot?
Emily Oster: The CDC said that basically when the high-risk people, grandparents, are vaccinated, they should feel comfortable getting together unmasked inside with un-vaccinated people, assuming that that second group is low-risk. So low-risk parents, low-risk kids, nobody’s got immune compromise issues. That kind of get-together can happen and can happen in kind of a normal way: inside, no masks, sleeping over. You can hug the grandparents, all that kind of stuff.
This kind of guidance has been a long time coming.
Yeah. The CDC has been quite cautious about giving permission for vaccinated people to do stuff. A lot of the messaging has been sort of like, OK, when you’re vaccinated, you’re protected, but we don’t know if other people are protected. That’s been a little bit frustrating, because basically every piece of data that we have had and everything we know about how vaccines work has suggested that the reduction in risk of transmission has got to be very high. Is it a hundred percent? No, it’s not a hundred percent. But some of this messaging early on made it sound like people thought it was zero. I think a lot of people got this idea, well, just because I’m vaccinated doesn’t mean there’s any less risk that I would transmit to you.
Right. “I could still be a super spreader, even if I’ve had the vaccine.”
I think there’s just nothing that would make us think that was true. As we have gotten more data, this new guidance embraces that idea that in fact, people who are vaccinated—yes, not completely out of the question that they could conceivably spread the virus, but it’s really, really, really, really unlikely, and hugely reduced from pre-vaccination. I thought this new guidance basically recognized that.
My kids are back in school this week. Can you give us an update on what the latest research is telling us about safety in the school environment and about how nervous I should be about my kids spreading the virus in a school?
I think our data has in some ways kept getting more reassuring. It has continued to suggest that schools are a low-risk environment. Not to say that no one could ever get COVID in schools, but it’s not an environment in which we’re seeing a lot of spread.
The other thing we’re learning more about over time is the directions of spread. So for example, there was a study last week which didn’t get that much attention, of schools in New York. In the cases where they could identify an index case in the small number of what seemed like in-school transmissions, 80% of it involved a staff member. And so there was very little student to student spread. That’s reassuring as we move into the spring, because a lot of those people are being vaccinated. Once you shut off that method, then you’re really talking about a very low risk environment. The only kind of possibility is kid to kid spread. We know that’s not happening much at all. And if it does, those kids are themselves very low risk. So I think you should feel good about it.
Some parents are still feeling that last little bit of nervousness, like, well, I’m going to be vaccinated, my parents are going to be vaccinated, but my kid isn’t vaccinated and I don’t know when they’re going to get vaccinated.
The big goal of vaccines is to reduce serious illness and death. That’s what we’re trying to produce with our vaccination. The vaccines we have take a huge risk of hospitalization and death for older adults and reduce it by 85, 95%. Just really big reductions in risk.
The thing is that your 9- or 10-year-old is already basically a vaccinated adult from that standpoint. I mean, it’s true. If you think about the reduction in hospitalization or death risk from being 10, rather than being 80, it’s 99.9%, 98%. It’s actually better than the Pfizer vaccine. I’m hoping that may be a helpful way for people to think about the relative risk for kids, because I think we’ve gotten to this space where it’s like, OK, well, until my kids are vaccinated, I can’t let them out. You’re letting the grandparents out. Let your kids out.
In my experience, vaccination campaigns essentially mean that the illness itself, the virus itself, is basically a non-factor in my life. I never have to think about it at all. It’s hard to imagine some future in which we basically never have to think about COVID at all even if we still live in a world where sometimes people get very mild versions of COVID, including possibly, us or our kids.
Yeah. This risk is so salient to us. If we’re thinking about it all the time, then it’s very hard to think about it as just, like, a regular risk, the way we think about a lot of other things. Of course COVID has been a much bigger deal. And for older people, un-vaccinated, COVID is a much higher risk than these other things. But as it moves to be a smaller and smaller risk, it’s going to take a really conscious mental shift to move it into the bucket of small things, which occasionally I think about, but I probably try not to worry about too much. As people, it’s hard to shrink this to the right risk size because of our inability to do small probabilities.
We need to be able to think of COVID like grocery store sushi or something.
Yeah. Just accept, like, sometimes you get it. For kids, especially, it’s a cold. And ultimately with vaccines it’s a cold for the rest of us. And we get those a lot from our kids and other people.
Although not this year.
Right. If you look at pediatric flu deaths, typically that’s about 200 a year. This flu season there was one in the US.
One pediatric flu death. And it’s obvious that some combination of the masking and social distancing and school stuff that people did have totally changed the flu season. Now it’s probably not worth it [to keep all those measures], but I think there will be a little unpacking of whether there any things that we did that really do move the needle that might be worth adopting in the future.
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